On Wednesday night, at a loft space in midtown Manhattan, HP unveiled its next generation of products. But the event wasn't solely about showing attending media HP's new laptops and tablets, which are, predictably, bland. Rather, HP aimed to deliver an elevated "evening of fashion, music, and technology." As servers made rounds with trays of Stella and lobster hors d'oeuvres, Project Runway contestants gushed over the company's displays, while DJ Robbie Wilde spun beats on an HP laptop.
The point, quite obviously, was to lend HP's tired and bruised brand an air of cool. It's a common tactic of struggling tech giants that often ends with comical results, such as when BlackBerry hired Alicia Keys as its creative director, despite the fact that she uses an iPhone. Or in this case, as one event sign explained, "DJ Robbie Wilde [uses] HP technology to bring music to clubgoers" (Never mind that he's paid handsomely to do so). But the gimmicky nature of the event wasn't limited to its special guests. HP took the same gimmicky approach to develop the centerpiece of the show, the company's new HP Envy 17 Leap Motion Special Edition TouchSmart Notebook (seriously, that's the actual name).
The hulking, 17.3-inch laptop is the first notebook integrated with Leap Motion, the novel technology that enables users to control their PCs through in-the-air hand gestures. It's undoubtedly a cool piece of tech and is often compared to the computer interactions seen in Minority Report: Users can navigate through apps with the wave of a hand or the flick of a finger. HP has embedded the sensor, which looks like a skinny piece of electrical tape, to the right of the trackpad. As a spokesperson demoed the technology, his hand floated above the sensor, tilting and swaying while he virtually zoomed around Google Earth.
It's clear how such eye candy will immediately appeal to consumers: It's almost inevitable that we'll see HP promote the technology heavily in its commercials or that we'll see Best Buy blue shirts tell parents that it's what their kids want this holiday season.
But while it's likely to benefit HP's future marketing campaigns, the partnership could also potentially hurt Leap Motion. The danger for Leap Motion is that it will become just another gimmick that PC makers parrot to consumers. The industry has a long history of co-opting flash-in-the-pan features for its own short-term ends. It wasn't long ago, for example, that HP was boasting that 3-D laptops were the wave of the future.
Leap Motion is wary of becoming a gimmick. "It has to be a tool, not a toy, and it's on us to keep coming up with use cases that feel essential," says Michael Zagorsek. the company's VP of product marketing. "It has to be useful not to be a gimmick."
The problem, however, is that its technology is still incredibly young. It only boasts around 100 apps, none of which are particularly compelling. (Is our experience reading the New York Times better because we can scroll through articles by waving our hands in the air?) Leap Motion has acknowledged that its sensor is not a replacement for the keyboard and mouse, and the interactions are often not intuitive and far from perfect. (HP's demo stopped working during the first few minutes.) There's a sense the technology is not ready for mainstream use.
On one hand, Leap Motion might see HP as an opportunity, a way to attract developers to its platform. By partnering with such a massive partner, Leap Motion can scale faster and spark more app development.
On the other hand, by embedding its technology in as many devices as possible too soon, there's a chance that consumers will see the technology as nothing more than a novelty. It reminds me of the fingerprint sensors PC makers jammed into their laptops before they were perfected, in the hope that doing so would differentiate their stale lineups.
For now, there are simply more practical reasons not to use the device than there are to use it. As HP has acknowledged, Leap Motion is a huge battery drain on the laptop—it recommends that it only be used while the PC is plugged in. Second, the midair gestures are tiring, another source of gorilla arm syndrome, with HP's laptop integration already being called "awkward."
For the partnership to be a success, the use cases have to be there. And right now, they are simply not, especially for mainstream HP consumers. It's why the two companies were boasting that Robbie Wilde could use the technology to DJ his shows, a use case that perfectly captures how gimmicky Leap Motion's technology could become if co-opted by the PC makers. I can already see the absurd commercials showing him scratch the ones and twos in midair, without actually touching his records, as if his hands were convulsing.
Leap Motion's technology has a lot of potential. It's incredibly promising. Elon Musk, for one, said his team uses the technology to design parts at SpaceX. But until mainstream-equivalent applications are available for average consumers, Leap Motion is not ready for prime time.