There’s something magical about drawing in a computer paint program by leisurely sliding a finger through the air. As one Fast Company reporter put it while trying Leap Motion’s gesture control technology for the first time: "I feel like God."
But don’t throw your mouse out yet. The Leap Motion Controller, which begins shipping on Monday, can do some great tricks, but its app store is, at launch, mainly stocked with toys.
Gum-pack-sized and sleek, the new $79.99 device plugs into a computer’s USB port and sits in front of you on your desk. It's pretty, but not special. The components in it have been around for more than five years. Leap Motion’s real innovation is its software, which can translate movement from your fingers individually, accurate up to 1/100th of a millimeter, to your computer screen in real time. The device enables apps to understand precise natural movements required for, say, playing a virtual harp rather than large, prescribed gestures such as the Xbox Kinect’s "wave to connect."
"It can be as intuitive as picking up a glass in the real world, and having that interaction with a computer," Leap Motion CEO Michael Buckwald says. Some apps in Airspace, Leap Motion’s app store, live up to his metaphor. An app called Flocking, for instance, gives you a digital school of fish to taunt with lights controlled by your fingertips. Another called Lotus is a musical toy played by waving in the air. Neither requires any instructions—using them is much like touching what is shown on your screen.
It does, however, take some time to learn that touching your face with your free hand will confuse the controller and that there’s no way to poke the air in front of you that won’t look at least a little silly to your coworkers. Gesture control has a learning curve. It took me about 10 minutes of practice, for instance, before I could pluck an individual string of Leap Motion’s AirHarp without disturbing the strings on either side.
Other applications require specific gesture signals to operate. In order to remove a bone from a skull dissection project in an app by developer Cyber Science, for instance, you first point at it until the blue cursor turns purple, then stick out your thumb until the cursor turns green, which signals the piece can be moved. Gestures like this aren’t necessarily intuitive, but they're not the reason Leap Motion won’t replace your mouse.
One reason Leap Motion won’t work as your default controller is that there are few apps in Airspace, and most of them—about 50 of 75—are games. There’s an app for dissecting a virtual frog, but not for Photoshop, browsing the web, or playing iTunes. Apps for general computer control could technically cover all of this, but the one that worked with my Mac was more difficult to use than a mouse, especially with several windows open. A sparse app store shouldn’t be a problem for long. Before its device went on sale, Leap Motion had more than 55,000 developers apply to make apps for it (it sent 12,000 of them controllers in advance). Some, like Google Maps, have built Leap Motion control directly into their websites without launching a separate app.
The bigger reason Leap Motion won’t replace your mouse is that doing so is not necessarily its goal. "The mission of Leap [is] to break down that barrier of what you’re thinking and what the reaction is on your device," Buckwald says. There’s no need to learn complex computer programs for creating 3-D models, for instance, when you can mold them like clay in the air in front of you using Leap Motion, just like there’s no need to learn a computer painting program when you can just pick up a paintbrush.
If what you’re thinking is "click that," however, there’s likely already a better tool sitting next to you at your desk.