Leap into the Future?

Jul 31, 2013 by

For most, Minority Report set the bar for the future of interaction with computers in new and fantastic ways. Does the Leap Motion Controller deliver on this vision in a way Microsoft’s Kinect for Windows does not? In some regards it comes close, but certainly not for navigating the traditional Windows 8 user interface or even browsing the web with gestures in the air (my main reason for purchasing one). The Leap trumps Kinect for Windows in its ability to track fine grain movements. The Leap’s demonstration of drawing in a virtual painting session with a pencil in the air depicts this.

Leap over the Mouse?

When it comes to performing the equivalent of a tap on a touchscreen or click of the mouse things start to go south with the Leap. It is evident during initial setup and training that the Leap has a dimensional plane that invokes different functions that divide the interface interaction space into two main areas. One area, the “Hover Zone,” is for navigation above and in front of the device. The other is for “touching”. This is done by moving a finger across that imaginary plane. Performing this gesture invokes different actions depending on the application. It is depicted best by this tutorial screen.

The issue with this is how wobbly your hand, and by extension your digits, are when they are unsupported in the air. Pushing into that “Touch Zone” to invoke the desired action is tedious and quickly tiring. Similarly, the gestures for scrolling down a web page are not as easy to reliably execute time and time again. This gesture involves moving your hand in a circle out of the hover zone, down and into the touch zone, and back out again. It’s likely Leap anticipated these issues, because the ability to control the pointer in a respective operating system is not part of the default installation for either Windows or Mac. The applications that enable these functions have some of the worst reviews in the Airspace Store. Just finding them requires browsing the All Free Apps section before you happen upon Touchless for Windows.

Jumping to Other Use Cases

If the Leap cannot deliver the experiences I was hoping it would for navigating the web and my operating systems does it have other redeeming aspects? I loaded up Google Earth and followed the instructions to enable non-mouse control within that application. I found that it too didn’t deliver the seamless navigation demonstrated in previews of the Leap. Not willing to write off the $80 USD investment I purchased one of the highest rated applications, Dropchord for $2.99, and loaded it up.

Within 30 seconds of launching I was relieved to see that this is where the Leap sprung to life and revealed its sweet spot. This game is fun and can be best described as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) for your fingers mixed with REZ. You point with both index fingers and move them in, out, and around a virtual circle. The game mechanics rely on these movements matched up with a strong track and beat to accompany your successful execution of moves timed to special effects. I look forward to spending more time with this application and challenging my friends and family to competition all while sweating less than when I play DDR.

Novelty or Must-have Tech?

Whether you consider the Leap a novelty or a must-have piece of technology depends on how you plan to use it. More applications and further enhancements coming to operating systems may move the needle on this, though right now it fits squarely in the novelty category. I’m sure there are other compelling things in the Airspace Store to be had, and at a few dollars an application, nothing is too exorbitantly priced to dismiss. The Leap reinforces one of my initial concerns around how usable this, or any new interface hardware, is without great software.

I see the potential for this device, and it is certainly more user friendly to set up in a home computing environment than what the Kinect for Windows is. This is especially true in terms of the area required to operate and how large a footprint the hardware itself consumes. The privacy minded individuals will also like the fact that there is not camera embedded and required for operation in the Leap. I hope for more software tweaks to improve web navigation, and Leap already provided a couple of firmware updates to address issues since launch.

The Leap feels like another small step forward on the journey of computer interactions and what gestures can bring in terms of fresh experiences with applications. I’m just not convinced it is, “….one giant leap for mankind.”

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