May 21, 2012 -- The distance between you and the virtual world is about to get even smaller. David Holz and Michael Buckwald, co-founders of startup Leap Motion, have created a 3-D motion control device that lets users control their computers by gesturing with their hands instead of using a keyboard or mouse.
The technology at work is reminiscent of that in Microsoft's Xbox Kinect device, which allows players to use their bodies as controllers or input devices. With the Leap, your fingers and hands are the controllers. Unlike the Kinect, the Leap uses a different technology that the creators say allows for far greater accuracy and precision within a smaller space.
Holz and Buckwald claim the Leap is accurate to within 1/100 of a millimeter and 200 times more sensitive than existing motion-sensing technologies. In a demo, Holz pointed at a laptop screen and traced the word "hello" in the air with his index finger while keeping his hand still and making only minimal movements with his finger. His gestures were processed and displayed simultaneously on the computer screen.
I took a turn playing Fruit Ninja using only my index finger and watched as watermelons, pineapples and oranges were obliterated with the most minimal of swipes through the air.
The Leap captures your movements within a space of roughly 4 cubic feet. Holz said, "We emit light and we sort of see how light bounces around . . . moves around the object. There's a lot of information there."
Buckwald said, "The biggest thing that other technologies can't do that we can, is track fingers and track them really accurately. Doing that requires deep, sub-millimeter tracking with multiple fingers and there's just no other technology in the world that's capable of doing that."
About the size of a pack of gum and half as thick, the Leap connects to your laptop or desktop computer via USB and can be placed where your keyboard normally would be or above the monitor, like a webcam. The device I saw was a prototype and final versions could potentially be smaller when they come out toward the end of this year.
The idea for the Leap came when Holz was first learning how to build 3-D models on his computer. He was frustrated with how long it took to create models on the computer versus simply drawing them.
"It's not because I didn't know what I wanted or the computer couldn't show me what I wanted, it's because there was something between me and the computer that prevented some kind of exchange from happening," Holz said. "I wanted to really break down that wall between the person and the computer and the digital and the physical."
Holz and Buckwald envision both professionals and mainstream consumers using the Leap, whether for 3-D modeling, playing video games or browsing the Internet. One of their backers is Bill Warner, founder of Avid Technology, which produces the digital non-linear editing system used widely in the TV and film industry. Warner said in a news release, "What's previously been an expensive special effect in movies is now an affordable everyday reality, in full 3-D. With the Leap, you use both hands and all 10 fingers to work within your computer's virtual environment just as easily as you do in the real world."
The Leap is slated for release this winter and will retail for $70. Leap Motion is accepting pre-orders on its website starting today.