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Leap Motion Review – Gimmick or next generation computer control device?

Ever wanted to be Tom Cruise on Minority Report? I don’t mean jumping off high buildings or getting the best girls – I am referring to being able to control a computer in thin air using your hands! Well now you can (get closer to that possibility) thanks to Leap Motion.

Leap Motion is a controller that allows you to control your computer, (or more accurately provide another form of input) by waving your hands in the air and it will track not only your hand movement, but individual finger movements as well.

How does Leap Motion work?

Leap Motion senses how you move your hands in three dimensional space using two infra-red cameras and three infra-red LEDs. It allows you to point, reach and grab (picking something up etc) instead of clicks, taps, and drag-and-drops. Its tries to mimic how we interact with objects in real life.

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Grab objects on screen as if you would in real life

The internals of the device contains two monochromatic IR cameras and three infra-red LEDs. The LEDs generate a 3D pattern of dots of IR light and the cameras capture almost 300 frames per second of reflected data. The data is sent to the computer where it is analysed by the Leap Motion controller software using proprietary algorithms not disclosed by the company. It works in a similar fashion to the Xbox Kinect which also calculates the 3D position data by comparing the 2D frames generated by the two cameras.

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LEDs are positioned outer left, right and in the middle. The two “eyes” are the cameras
Leap Motion Accuracy

The first thing people usually think of when looking at Leap Motion Controller is Minority Report, the second is to draw parallels with Xbox Kinect. Remember the hype that generated when it first came out? Well a similar hype followed Leap Motion, and after the hype subsided a similar set of limitations were found.

The best app to test the device’s accuracy is the user training / Orientation app that comes for free. As you move you hand and fingers, you quickly realise couple of things:

  1. The area in which your hand is “seen” by the device is very limited, so you have to remember not to stray too far
  2. Fingers come and go! The app does a decent job of of capturing your fingers, but you have to really spread your fingers for it to pick them out otherwise it will get confused
  3. There is some lag between you moving and reflecting the movement on screen, its not a lot, but noticeable
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My hand as seen by Leap Motion device

The best use for this device (as was the case for Xbox Kinect) is simple movements rather than delicate ones. Repeated and crude actions such as fist open / closed is easy to capture, but don’t expect it to allow you to play an air keyboard any time soon.

Applications

Leap Motion does NOT work for everyday applications, it does not work for Windows / iOS out of the box. It comes with its app store in the form of Airspace – its same idea as iTunes store but for Leap Motion apps instead. It is an ecosystem which allows you to hear about the latest and coolest apps designed specifically to work with the device. However, I found that the majority of apps did not have many user reviews, reflecting its small user base and also found downloading from airspace extremely download!

The apps themselves fall into various categories, but I was most interested in Education, Games and Productivity. The Educational apps include exploration themes like Google Earth and also science based apps to dissect a frog or a spider. The 3D aspects of these apps were quite good and enough to hold my attention for 10mins. However to control some of the finer movements requires a lot of patience, so I think this isn’t kids friendly enough.

Productivity apps include creative design apps and also apps to help you control your PC / Mac. In fact, given the amount of gesture controls built into the Mac, it is no surprise that the vast majority of Leap Motion OS control apps are aimed soled at the Mac. In fact, BetterTouchTool which allows users to gesture control their Mac is the top rated app in Airspace. The Windows offerings were slim pickings and in reality very limited by small set of gestures windows recognises.

I tried out two of the best games available, DropChord and Blue Estate Prologue. The latter is a shoot them up style game where you are running round holding your hand in the shape of a gun and aiming at Mafia type figures. There is an action to reload the gun, but otherwise the controls are pretty basic. The game itself is actually great fun and visuals / music amazing. However, after initial 10 seconds I couldn’t help thinking the game would be so much better if I could just use my mouse instead.

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Blue Estate Prologue

DropChord on the other hand was a game that truly works best using Leap Motion. It is a fast paced yet simple game which moves along with the beat of the music – reminds me a little of AudioSurf. This game really tests your ability to control your hands and after 10mins feels like you’ve been to the gym.

Leap Motion Causes Arm Fatigue

In the end, the biggest issue I have with Leap Motion device is fatigue. What Tom Cruise didn’t tell us was that it is extremely tiring keeping your arms up in the air all the time! Even with optimal position by resting your elbows, your arms feel like they are having a workout. After 20 years of using keyboard and mouse, I guess my arms are just not accustomed to all that effort required just to scroll the page or shoot a gun or dissect a spider.

Summary

Fun while it lasted, but for now just another gimmick – albeit one with a lot of backing and potential. I am going to keep mine for now, if for no other reason than to try out their impressive looking V2 software upgrade (due later this year) which should address all the issues I had with accuracy. However, I highly doubt they can make my hands any less tired.

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