The idea of gesture based control has so far made its mark in the gaming industry, courtesy of Microsoft’s Kinect and Nintendo Wii, but Leap Motion, a relatively modest manufacturer, is aiming to take motion sensing and gesture control mainstream.
Making the mouse obsolete and making gestures the interface of choice is an admirable ambition but gesture-based experiences have so far left a sour taste in the mouths of many. The disappointment has been magnified by devices repeatedly failing to deliver on the precision and engaging experiences that were so famously bandied about in advertisments and in the tightly controlled tech demos from Microsoft and Nintendo.
Leap Motion’s narrative has somewhat of a similar trajectory. Since announcing its baby – the Leap Motion controller (Leap) - in May last year, the company has made some big promises about what the technology will bring to the table.
Leading up to the release, Leap was shown to perform everyday computing tasks such as navigating a website, using pinch-to-zoom gestures on maps, high precision drawing and interacting in high-end PC games, all with pin-point accuracy and gestural ease.
But does the Leap have what it takes to be a viable mouse replacement?
The actual device is a tiny three inch box that takes up very little space next to your desktop PC or notebook. It runs off a USB port, but currently only uses USB 2.0 speeds. There are plans to release a future software update that will take advantage of the additional bandwidth USB 3.0 offers, potentially increasing the performance of the device.
Inside the sleek looking device are two microscopic cameras and three infra-red LEDs which are designed to track your hands including the movements of each individual finger down to a precision of 0.01mm with no visible lag. According to Leap Motion, its input device is 200 times more precise than Kinect or anything else on the market.
The thing you have to remember is that the device has a limited detection range which the company claims is eight cubic feet from directly above the unit.
This is different to something like the Kinect, which uses a combination of an RGB camera, depth sensor and motorised pivot for full body motion detection.
It's also worth noting that you will need a fairly powerful machine to run this device as the processing of the movement data is offloaded to your computer's CPU. Even on our high end Core i7 machine CPU usage hit above 80 per cent.
Apps and Airspace
Setup is straightforward but before you can actually start using the device you will be required to create an Airspace store account, which is Leap's version of the app store. The long term success of the hardware will ultimately hinge on a thriving app market and, from the get go, there are close to a hundred different apps to choose from.
There is a small selection of free apps but the vast majority require payment and typically range between three to four dollars. Most are nothing more than glorified tech demos or casual games that are unlikely to hold your attention for too long but there are a few professional tools starting to crop up in the store, such as, a plugin for Autodesk's Maya.
There are also a number of applications geared towards the education sector such as "Molecules", a file viewer that allows you to display and manipulate three-dimensional renderings of molecular structures using motion controls.
To get an idea of how the hardware performs, we tested it against a number of different applications.
Made by the developers of Leap Motion, the application is designed to teach newcomers the capabilities of the device.
It does this by displaying a live 3D wireframe of your hands on-screen complete with individual finger and joint tracking. While the movement in our fingers were replicated on-screen with no perceptible lag, we found that Leap struggled to detect all our ten fingers no matter where we positioned our hands.
When we first fired up Google Earth we were sent for a spin around the globe. As it turns out it was the protruding thumb that was setting off the sensor in a constant loop. The application expects you to keep your thumb and fingers at equal distances. As one would expect, this anatomy defying feat is rather tricky to maintain, particularly while simultaneously conducting the requisite gestures to navigate the map.
However, tucking away the thumb entirely resolved the issue and, after a bit of training, we were able to navigate the map with the precision of a mouse. Using gestures and motion control to fly around the 3D globe felt natural and the experience was faster and more enjoyable to use than a keyboard and mouse setup. It's here the potential of the Leap really starts to shine through.
The only gripe is that even on a high end test machine, Google Earth struggles to maintain consistent frames while performing the CPU intensive task of interpreting the gestures captured by the Leap Motion.
Cyber Science 3D Motion
Cyber Science is an app that demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Leap. The application is an educational tool that allows the user to explore, dissect and assemble a human skull.
Manipulating the 3D skull from all angles and zooming felt fast and precise. It's not until the device was requested to track finger movements that the experience began to suffer. To pick apart the skull, you need to stick your thumb out to initiate a selection of bone. The inconsistent tracking leads to Leap misreading our thumbs position entirely, resulting in unintended, somewhat unfortunate, selections.
Corel Painter Freestyle
Corel Painter lets you create artwork by painting in mid-air using your finger or even a pen. Drawing on a virtual blank canvas and selecting different brushes using gestures worked well. The application even detected the orientation of our pen on a number of different axes, which correspondingly adjusted the directional flow of our strokes.
We didn't have any problem in creating big and abstract strokes but professionals will still want to use their graphics tablets for drawings that require more precision and pressure sensitivity.
Desktop control with Touchless and GameWAVE
Both GameWave and Touchless are applications that are designed to give you full gestural control of your Mac or Windows OS desktop. Touchless is developed by Leap Motion and comes pre-loaded on your store account. GameWave takes things a bit further and offers customised mapping of keyboard and mouse controls to the Leap, allowing you to control your desktop OS in addition to any PC game or application with gestures.
You can assign the left hand to mouse cursor movement and the right hand for mouse clicks or keyboard strokes, but this is where the inconsistent tracking ability of the Leap Motion once again becomes apparent.
Regardless of the application in use, rudimentary tasks such as opening files on the desktop are an exercise in frustration as the Leap struggles to track the hand for any period of time causing the mouse cursor to jump around erratically or disappear altogether.
Attempting to reorientate the cursor is not a straight forward process either as the sweet spot, which is much smaller than the 8 cubic feet of virtual detection space, constantly shifts around as well.
Even tasks that you would expect to translate well to gesture control, such as navigating the Windows 8 metro interface with swipes, fall disappointingly short with unpredictable gesture detection, that fail more often than not.
New York Times
A simple app that lets you scroll through stories from the New York Times by either using a pointing gesture or with gentle swipes. Sounds straight forward, but it isn't.
Scrolling within an article, oddly enough, is executed by rotating your finger either in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. The Leap senses the speed at which the gestures are being performed and the scroll speed is adjusted accordingly.
Still, the occasional hitches in gesture detection don't hamper the experience too much and this is one app that does perform relatively well
The final verdict
In its current state, the Leap device still has a long way to go. There's plenty of potential but the erratic spatial tracking just isn't up to the mark and falls short of promise. It also has a limited 'sweet spot' that very quickly shrinks and shifts in ambient lighting conditions.
Leap has received three software updates since launch, each one attempting to improve performance, so at least Leap Motion is aware of its shortcomings and is attempting to fix them.
It might be a work in progress but Leap has the potential to streamline multitasking activities on the current paradigm of touch-enabled laptops, all-in-ones, and hybrid/convertible devices, provided the gesture detection issues are ironed out
"The ability to lift the hand slightly and use motions between typing sessions to sweep through applications on Windows 8 for example, provides a more ergonomic alternative to jumping between screen and keyboard," says Michael Yamnitsky, Analyst at Forrester Research.
HP and Asus have already announced plans to embed the Leap Motion technology into select laptops, desktop PC's and other devices so OEM's obviously see potential in Leap's ability to augment existing mouse and touchscreen experiences.
"We see motion sensing and control driving an evolution of the traditional desktop PC to a concept we call "frames" — wall-mounted smart displays with sensors, wireless connectivity, processing power, and wireless docking capabilities to work with mobile devices", explains Yamnitsky.
"Imagine a product design review meeting in which designers motion control to manipulate product designs in real time based on the conversation happening in the room via a frame PC projecting a zone of view onto a worktable."
It's an exciting scenario, but achieving it will take time and the mass market won’t be ditching the mouse for a leap Motion controller anytime soon.
Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based Freelance Journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering Business IT and Consumer Technology.