As the world readies for the onslaught of holiday gadget buying, one of the most promising of all has already launched and been dispensed with by many early observers. The Leap Motion gesture controller debuted this summer. The $80 harmonica sized nub of metal and glass has so far proven to be a letdown.
Innovation, Not Imitation
One of the most anticipated technology releases of the first half of 2013, the Leap Motion debuted with a handful of third party apps in its Airspace app store. The number of apps is now up to about 125, so there is still developer interest. But it's unclear how enthusiastic they are about the device. The motion detection in the small sensor is hard to judge and even harder at times to control.
Leap Motion launched an updated community forum recently. It combined the user and developer forums while preparing to shutter the old forums. This has not been a happy development as some of the developers have noted in the new forum. Comments on the Leap Motion Facebook Page have gotten pretty ugly, too.
There are dozens of people posting about how they are planning to return the Leap Motion, among other complaints. In the gadget world, there is really only one analog to the Leap Motion, the Kinect game controller from Microsoft. Kinect is really only for playing games, though that will soon change. Leap Motion connects to a computer with a USB connection, and that is why it holds such promise.
Hewlett Packard even released the HP Envy17 Leap Motion SE, a laptop with the Leap Motion embedded into the hand rest for gesture controls. So far, neither this laptop nor the Leap Motion itself is generating much demand. But as with the first generation of any futuristic technology, the promise lives on.
Facebook App Gives Most Minority Report-like Performance
When we first heard about Leap Motion, we envisioned the Hollywood portrayal of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report. Immersive, 3D interactive screens that could be controlled by gestures just seemed like too much fun and from our trials with the device, it seems we were right.
Of the apps we tried out, the Photoexplore for Facebook app gave us the most Minority Report like experience. You read that right. Facebook. The app does just what it promised and we scrolled through Facebook pictures by swiping left or right with a hand in the air. But like most of the apps, the gestures were a bit loose resulting in swiping too far or an unregistered motion. Leap Motion's sensors were either too sensitive or there wasn't enough light. It's hard to tell and that's why using the device is ultimately so frustrating.
The best part of the app is resizing an image because two fingers are needed to stretch or shrink them. That means both hands can be used to manipulate the photos, the only time the power of Leap Motion almost came to life for us. That's not saying much.
There's plenty of games, of course. But like the Facebook app, the controls are not easy to figure out or use. One called Catch Up Calo, a flying space alien game, at least had a partial tutorial. Another called Cueb is like 3D billiards in outer space. It's an actual game, rather than just flying or swiping, but getting the cue ball to aim properly is a trying task.
All of these apps were apparently built just for Leap Motion, but there are a few pre-existing apps that were repurposed for Leap Motion. Cut the Rope and Fruit Ninja, insanely popular apps that have been downloaded millions of times, are two of them. The others are a New York Times app and apps from Adobe Photoshop and Google Earth.
Even the NY Times app wasn't all that easy to use, and it only has a few gestures involved for scrolling up and down and selecting a story to read. Google Earth was very much like the flying game mentioned above but with slightly better controllability.
Google Earth with Leap Motion makes for some grand flyovers of places like San Francisco.
Software Needs to Catch Up to Hardware
We're glad Leap Motion exists and the fact it is affordable holds out the promise it will continue to do so. However, the software so far is less than impressive. That goes for the apps as well as for the device itself. Both are iterating, and at the end of October, an Airspace update rolled out that includes a search feature for finding apps.
There also appears to be an updated SDK in the works from Leap Motion, which should allow apps to updated with perhaps better controls, according to the company's community forums. In the meantime, the most useful app we could find is called HandWAVE, which can be used to assign specific gestures to a handful of actual tasks.
For example, a document can be opened when a circular motion is made with a finger (think dialing an old rotary telephone — in the air) or an open palm is tilted up or down. It's not much, but that is what we found. There's also the HandWAVE companion app GameWAVE that can be used to perform similar keyboard shortcuts. It's kind of a workaround, but it has more options than HandWAVE because it's used in online role playing games where lots of keyboard shortcuts are the norm during gameplay.
Devices like Leap Motion are truly innovative, even if they don't immediately shift the landscape on impact. The company has no doubt learned much over the last few months about what people want and expect from the device. Here's to another year of improvements and steady updates that keep pointing us toward the digital horizon.