July 22, 2013 — -- Over the last decade our computers have taken big leaps. They've gotten thinner, faster and much more affordable, yet the way we navigate them has stayed virtually the same since 1983 when Apple released the Lisa, one of the first computers with a mouse. It's 2013, and while some Windows laptops have touchscreens, for the most part we rely on a trackpad or mouse to push around a little cursor for selecting images or text. Until this week.
A new little box is about to wave in the future of computer navigation -- quite literally. The $79.99 Leap Motion, which begins shipping and arriving in Best Buy stores this week, brings gesture control to Mac and Windows computers. With hand gestures such as waves, pokes, reaches and grabs in the air you can navigate games and other programs, just like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." It's bold, fun and futuristic, but not everything is picture perfect.
How it Works
The Leap Motion is the size of a box of Altoids or a mini Snickers bar, but don't be fooled by its small size. Inside the 1.2 x 3 x .5-inch rectangular box are cameras and sensors that instantly sense the slightest movement of ten fingers.
Setting up the peripheral is simple: plug it in with the included USB cord, place it on a flat surface in front of a laptop's keyboard or a computer monitor, download the Airspace software and almost magically an invisible, touch-sensitive, 3-D sphere around the device is created. Moving your hands around within the 8 cubic foot space surrounding the box is all you need to do to navigate what's on your computer screen.
If you've used the Kinect for the Xbox, the experience will seem really familiar, but the Leap has been described as a Kinect on steroids. It is said to be 200 times more precise than the Microsoft Kinect and can pick up the slightest movements. And because it recognizes your finger location, it is precise enough to react to finer gestures, including drawing with a pen.
Gesture-Enabled Games and Apps
But you can't start using the controller to navigate the current software on your computer without first accessing Leap's Airspace Store and Home software to download specific apps. The software interfaces are clean and easy to navigate, although the web-based Airplay Store is confusingly separated from the Airplay Home portal, which houses the downloaded apps.
At launch there are only 75 apps (both free and paid) in the store, many of them games. I've quickly become addicted to using my hand to slice the rope and feed the green-colored monster in "Cut the Rope" and racing a small car around a track by putting two hands on an invisible steering wheel in "Sugar Rush." Other popular games like "Fruit Ninja" and "Froggle" are also fun to play using only your arm waves. And yes, part of the pleasure is looking totally ridiculous making big gestures in the air.
But it's not only fun and games. In fact, some of the educational apps are even more entertaining. "Frog Dissection," -- yes, you got that one; it simulates a frog dissection -- lets you closely examine the organs of the amphibian. Move your hand towards the screen and you zoom in on the gallbladder. Twist your wrist and you can view all its angles with rich 3D graphics. Google Earth lets you do the same -- except with the world -- as you twist and turn the globe and fly through space.
For the artists, there are apps like Deko Sketch for Mac and Corel Painter Freestyle for Windows, which allow you to sketch and paint using the air as your canvas. Most of the gesture navigation is restricted to the apps, though an app called Touchless lets you control the mouse cursor with your hand. The version for Windows can be useful, that is after you figure out how to properly use it to move around and transition between screens.
Leap Motion is incredibly immersive and an entirely new way of controlling content on the computer. I've spent considerable time this week being amused and delighted by twisting a frog gallbladder in the air -- words I'd never thought I'd type. But for all the amazement and fun, there are obvious signs that this is a brand new tool.
For the most part, navigation and control are precise, however in some app menus, movement can be shaky and imprecise. Other times the apps can be very slow and sluggish, even on a powerful MacBook Pro Retina powered by a Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM. Additionally, when I tested the Airspace app on the Microsoft Surface Pro, the software had problems adjusting to the screen resolution and everything appeared blown out. More than a few times I've had to hit the Alt + Ctrl + Del keys to exit a failed app or revert to my mouse to get to the close window button.
Additionally, many of the apps take a while to figure out how to navigate correctly and the experience isn't always consistent. For example, some require a single finger and get tripped up if you use two and others want you to poke to select while others want you to hold your finger over something.
For that reason and many others, the Leap Motion isn't about to completely replace the trusty mouse we have relied on for the last 30 years. Holding your hands in the air to click on a link or move through your Inbox sounds like a terrible waste of time. But that's not the point of the little device.
"There are many things the mouse and keyboard are great for, but there are some things that they fail at catastrophically," the founder of Leap Motion Michael Buchwald told me last week. And he's right.
With a mouse or even a touchscreen you cannot learn about a frog's heart as if it were in your hand or mold a piece of virtual clay or soar through space with a wave or your hand. That's why, even despite its current imperfections and bugs, the $80 Leap Motion still seems like a computing leap worth taking.