In 2013, I reviewed Leap Motion’s controller–a steak-fry-sized $80 USB gizmo that let you control PC games, reading and creativity apps, and other software by waving your hands as if you were Tom Cruise in Minority Report. It was neat. But it was also obvious that the technology would fail or flourish based on whether third-party developers came up with uses for it that had wide appeal.
Since I wrote about Leap, its ability to register even very subtle movements of your hands and fingers has gotten even more sophisticated. But the most promising development for its tech has been the parallel arrival of virtual-reality platforms such as Oculus Rift and OSVR. Once you’ve strapped a VR headset to your head, you’re going to need a way to manipulate objects in the virtual world you enter. Leap is up to the job. And the notion of using it for 3-D input within 3-D worlds has more long-term potential than simply using it as an air mouse for PC-based apps.
Last year, Leap devised a $20 mount that let you fasten its controller to the front of Oculus’s Rift headset, and began showing off software that helps developers implement hand-tracking in VR apps. Now it’s announcing that its tech will be built into an optional faceplate for the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit, which is scheduled to begin shipping in June. The same sensors in its USB controller will be embedded in the faceplate, allowing for motion control similar to what Leap is also doing with Oculus, except without the stand-alone controller, mount, and additional cable.
OSVR, which is spearheaded by gaming PC company Razer, among others, is an open-source platform that aims to become an Android-like force for VR, a foundational technology that many companies can use to build products. If it catches on, Leap’s technology could be incorporated into all sorts of VR hardware from all sorts of manufacturers.
During a recent visit to Leap Motion’s San Francisco office, I chatted with the company’s founders, David Holz and Michael Buckwald, and tried out some virtual-reality demos using both an OSVR headset and Oculus Rift. I nudged spheres and cubes around with my fingers; controlled a torrent of stars à la Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; and manipulated controls such as pushbuttons and sliders. They were just examples of things Leap will help developers accomplish, not full-blown VR applications, and the experience wasn’t quite eerie in its realism. (Sometimes my fingertip would poke inside a cube, and I had to get used to the fact that I couldn’t feel the objects I touched.) But it sure felt more natural than using a conventional game controller while wearing a VR headset.
The combination of a headset and Leap’s technology is reminiscent of what Microsoft is doing with HoloLens, its augmented-reality headset. However, I haven’t seen any evidence that Microsoft’s version will allow for the sort of sophisticated manipulation that Leap provides. In one HoloLens demo, you use an “air tap”–a jab of your finger–to smack a virtual hammer within a world based on Minecraft. With Leap, you could theoretically pick up such a hammer and use it to pound away in a much more real-world manner. Sounds like fun to me, and reason enough to be excited about Leap’s potential all over again.