The Leap Motion is a promising technology still in need of its first killer app. Because while this $70 computer accessory can track your gestures with sub-millimeter accuracy, no one’s really figured out what to do with it yet–outside a few notable fringe hacks.
Freeform, a free piece of software by Leap, teases the sort of interface magic we’ve all been hoping for. It places a moldable blob in the middle of your screen. And by selecting various tools (much like you might in Photoshop), you can poke and prod the blob into a 3-D sculpture of your imagination.
It’s clearly not meant to be a true professional tool–after all, you choose whether you’d like to sculpt in several tranquil scenes like a garden or redwood forest. Rather, it seems to be built for a casual dive into the world of gesture art.
In my own 20 minutes of testing on my Macbook, however, I found the app takes more finesse than one might hope. While it’s true, you can pull off feats like sinking your finger into the object to make a crevasse, you’ll probably feel less like a professional potter than a pudgy-fingered child poking at Play-Doh.
Through the Leap Motion, your gestures can vary between barely recognized and surgically precise at a split second’s notice. And that makes a simple-sounding process–like touching the blob and extending a noodle out from its surface–feel like artisan crafting. You need to very slowly move your finger toward the blob to sit right on its surface (a learned skill with no tactile feedback and few onscreen cues), then as you pull your finger away, a trail of blob will follow in what feels like a combination of pulling taffy and piping icing. Chances are, you’ll be left with a messy arc that’s nowhere as gorgeous as it was in your mind’s eye.
Admittedly, I’m being quite critical. There were bursts here and there when I’d think to myself, “This is freaking amazing!” But I’m uncertain that most people could generate something intentionally beautiful in it. At minimum, there’s a steep learning curve to work in the Freeform medium–which I found when my wife, intrigued by my work, anxiously tagged in, only to grow too frustrated to continue within moments. Of course, if you have a Leap Motion, you should download it and decide for yourself. The software is free, and its interface is worth exploring for any UI geek.
That said, the more Leap Motion apps I see–be they dissection simulations, physics games, or creation engines–the more I wonder if the platform really needs, not just any killer app, but algorithmic fudging of an iPad app like Paper. Through nuanced coding, Paper can turn your scribbles into flowing calligraphy. And with its follow up, the Pencil stylus, the team built in all sorts of invisible logic capable of differentiating a user’s intent with every gesture (whether they were they drawing, or just setting their free hand on the iPad screen).
Freeform, and every other Leap Motion app I’ve tried, still feel like glitch-prone tech demos because they lack a rock solid core logic that can always sense a poke from a pull, or a finger from a hand, or an intentional movement from an accidental, human one. That failing kills the magic, and it needs to be addressed for the device to ever go mainstream.
[Hat tip: Prosthetic Knowledge]