HP’s new Envy 17 laptop is a boring clamshell portable computer like a hundred thousand similar models in its class. It has a battery, a keyboard, a screen and a trackpad in what is now a humdrum and typical layout, and its design borrows heavily from the MacBook. But squeezed among its innards is a circuit that’s not been seen on a laptop before. It’s the Leap Motion sensor–which enables it to interpret 3-D gestures.
Is it a gimmick? Absolutely. It’s not that the 3-D sensing technology isn’t ready. The real issue with Leap Motion’s sensor, you see, is so new that no one really knows what the heck to do with it. Check out the reviews of the device from when it launched as an independent peripheral: It’s fun, exciting, novel…and without genuine purpose. Sure, Elon Musk can pay his clever technicians to use the sensor to make him feel like Iron Man, but HP integrating the device is a bit odd–it’s not going to “transform” how you use the laptop, because the laptop is mostly just a typical Windows box.
So while the hardware may be getting ahead of itself, 3-D gesture sensing is likely here to stay. Remember when webcams first hit the scene? The same problem–there wasn’t really a use-case for them. But then the technology advanced, and webcams simultaneously got better in terms of quality and much cheaper. Then Skype and Google Hangouts and, heck, even things like Chatroulette arrived and now the webcam is such a commonplace and–above all–cheap device that it’s built into the lid of most every laptop, even if you only use it occasionally.
I’ll argue sensor’s like Leaps are just like this. Because the inherent value in a 3-D gesture sensor is obvious with just a bit of thought. Coders or designers whose strained wrists and fingertips are abused with endless hours at the keyboard or trackpad can use a different interface–even if only sometimes–to control their machine. Gesture-based gaming is a success on the Xbox…so why can’t it be built into the next PC game genre? And what about answering a Skype call on your kitchen laptop with a wave of a flour-coated hand as you’re in the middle of cooking dinner–without having to daub a mess onto your keyboard?
When sensors like Leaps are more refined, advanced and much cheaper, which will probably take just a couple of years, I’ll bet they’re built into your main computer for when you need them. It won’t necessarily be all the time. But by then we’ll probably be very used to waving at our Xbox’s, our TVs and probably even our iPads…so why not our PCs too? After all: The person who designed the webcam couldn’t possibly dream up a phenomenon like Chatroulette. So the most unusual uses of 3-D gestures probably haven’t even been realized yet.
[Image: Flickr user Sergey Ivanov]