Leap Motion's 3-D System Is Like A Kinect For Controlling Your Computer

Forget about jet packs. A San Francisco startup is about to bring "Minority Report"-style control to your computer.

We might not have jet packs yet, but apparently the ability to control our computers by wiggling our fingers is right around the corner. 

Leap Motion, a San Francisco startup, has created a device ("the Leap") that lets you control your computer just my moving your fingers over it, as if you were using a touchscreen in the air.

But you can also use it to manipulate 3-D items as well, like working with a 3-D model or rotating 3-D objects and displays—all without special gloves or other controllers. The device, a small rectangular cube that you plug into your computer via the USB drive, simply follows your fingers, or any other object (like a pen or brush) that you stick into the 4 cubic feet above it. (See video, below.)

The company says the device is 200 times more precise than any other technology out there today. The company's founders, Michael Buckwald and David Holtz, won't divulge how they cracked a nut that academia and industry have been banging away at for decades to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. But they say the secret is in the software and how it processes the input, not in the sensors inside the device, which they call little more than glorified webcams.

The invention is the brainchild of Holtz, a mathematician and physicist, who first started dreaming of such a device in high school while trying to create 3-D models on his computer for science fair competitions. "It really struck me how needlessly technical something like that can be," he tells Fast Company. Instead of having to interact with the models by way of a computer mouse, he just wanted to be able to manipulate them directly, with his hands.

The system will have backward compatibility with existing software programs so that, for example, you could use it to navigate through Microsoft Word or use the tools in Adobe Illustrator the same way you would with a mouse or stylus. 

But Leap Motion thinks the most profound developments will take place when developers create whole new types of software specifically to take advantage of the fact that you can now use your hands as controls. "Imagine a surgeon in the operating room," Buckwald tells Fast Company. "Without taking their gloves off, they can zoom in on a 3-D MRI set." 

Leap Motion is now taking pre-orders for the $69.99 device but won't begin shipping it until the end of this year or early 2013. The company is also opening up its developer ecosystem to give software makers a head start on developing new applications.

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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