Review: Leap Motion

Aug 7, 2013

If you’ve seen Minority Report or Iron Man, you must have at one point thought of how incredibly efficient, and engaging, it would be to control a computer system with just your hands. Gone would be the need for the computer mouse – a two-dimensional device in need of a serious upgrade. Enter the Leap Motion. It’s a small, thumb-sized and USB-powered device that rests near your monitor. The promise of the Leap Motion is to lead to new types of applications and software that are best controlled with your extremities, if not impossible otherwise. So, is this the little device that could?

Packaging

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The package quality is right up there with the Nike Fuelband and Apple iPad Mini. It’s elegant, minimal, and sturdy. Included in the box are two USB cables (one longer than the other). Also, an insert is included that describes the setup process.

Setup

It doesn’t get more simple than this. Plug the device into an available USB port, place it near your monitor, and navigate to a URL hosted by Leap Motion. After downloading and installing the software, you are subjected to a brief tutorial. I found this only got in the way of what I thought would be a Minority Report-afternoon. On the other hand, it is fascinating to observe a visualization of what the device is interpreting. Note: calibrating the Leap Motion was not a requirement upon setup. More on that later.

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Hardware

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Think of this as a rectangular Apple TV. It’s a combination of plastic, rubber and aluminium. Effectively, it’s small, elegant, and requires a constant USB connection. That makes it not laptop-friendly. Also, due to it’s light-weight and my messy-ness, we were not a good union. I constantly found myself brushing against the device and tossing papers and folders around it. The Leap Motion adapted well to that but it wasn’t an ideal scenario. I had to eventually re-calibrate which improved performance significantly over the initial experience.

Performance/Ecosystem

As noted above, the initial setup did not require calibration. And my mind didn’t think to calibrate it. In fact, there wasn’t any guidance after the software installation. So, I opened the only icon it dropped on my desktop: Airspace. This is your window into the ecosystem of Leap Motion. At launch, Airspace listed 75 available apps. Some are OS-specific and almost all cost money. Mean prices range from $2-$5. I started with the Touchless app. This app adds desktop integration to the Leap Motion device. What you actually get is a replacement for your mouse that now demands you use your fingers. There is a reason it’s current review rating is a 2/5 stars on the Airspace store. It doesn’t work well enough to justify usage. Unfortunately, desktop integration is what I was expecting out of the box for the Leap Motion. And it pains me to say it but without that integration, it’s not a device that I recommend purchasing at $80.

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Other apps include Cut the Rope which takes a lot of getting used to. It’s a fine proof of concept but the iOS version is still the champ. Another included app is Google Earth. After reading forums and messing with settings, I was able to get the Leap Motion to work with it, but, again, it wasn’t worth the trouble. The Leap Motion struggled to interpret the gestures of my hands and fingers. For instance, the slightest shift in finger position would send the map perspective zooming wildly in and out.

Final Thoughts

The Leap Motion is a neat idea. So neat that I backed it more than a year ago. But right now it’s a poor cursor replacement instead of a new way to increase productivity. I fear the future will only brighten if a plethora of apps appear on Airspace that can replace standards such as Microsoft Office and traditional web browsers.

 

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3 Comments

  1. It’s really too bad when software holds hardware back from being great (the reverse can also be true). At the end of the day, ease of use is going to push units. Perhaps software will come in time.

  2. We got one of these at work, and after bringing in a few dozen people, only a small collection of them really “got it”. The rest didn’t realize the sensitivity and precision of the device. I had a great time using it in Google Earth. It was really fun to be able to control 3-4 dimensions of inputs rather than just 2 dimensions with the mouse. After an hour of flying around I was good enough at it where I could quickly fly through the base of the grand canyon without hitting walls. It does take a certain kind of mind to get it, but for those with excellent hand-eye coordination and spatial relationship understanding, it works really really well. Also, orientation to the device matters, as well as finger position. In Google Earth, closing your hand into a fist locks controls so you can pull your hand away without moving the world, if you get tired. When constructing the driver for this, I’d imagine you’d want to build in a little less sensitivity so the majority of people don’t get frustrated when this magical device does something they’re not expecting when they wiggle a finger. I had a great time with it, others seemed to have difficulty.

    • I’ve heard of people like you! Yes, I have read similar reports of people who really got it right away. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

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