Leap Motion Controller – a piece of future on your desk

The Leap hooked up

The Leap hooked up

Almost a year in waiting, months of delays, leaks, and updates.

But it’s here now.

It’s the smaller, better, more elegant equivalent of kinect – for the desktop (or laptop) PC.

It’s called “LEAP” and what it is, is a motion/volume sensor that allows you to control your pc using gestures and movements with (up to) all ten fingers.

Confusing? remember the movie “Minority report”? well it’s pretty much like that, only you don’t need to wear anything, just put your hands in the air.

Before unboxing

Before unboxing

It started with Primesense, a small israeli company that designed the kinect (before it even got that name) and signed a deal with microsoft which brought the bulky controller to millions of home along with the XBox360 video games console.

The kinect allowed people to play using their entire body instead of relying on a game controller. It pretty much revolutionized the gaming world, but was limited to Microsoft’s game console, and did not have much use elsewhere. Especially considering it’s inaccuracy and requirement for plenty of space.

Unboxed

Unboxed

The success of the kinect did not go unnoticed, and around May 2010, a small american company that goes by the name “Leap Motion”, announced a product that sounded way too good to be real, the “LEAP” controller. It sounded so far fetched, that there were quite a few claims that it’s all “vaporware” that will dissipate as soon as they reeled in enough gullible investors money to allow them to fly off to some sunny island with no extradition treaties.

They promised a controller that is roughly the size of a pack of gum, allows millimeter-level control accuracy, and with all ten fingers! Can this even be done?

Leap - Closed Box

Leap – Closed Box

But as time passed, the Leap controller turned out to be quite real. The company kept releasing bits of news, demonstrating the gadget at trade-shows, and showing off the capabilities in video clips. And in December 2012 Leap Motion begun shipping 10,000 developer units which included an early preview version of the controller as well as an SDK. This was a brilliant move which allowed the early building of the future application store for the Leap – months before the official release.

Demand exceeded supply greatly as over 40,000 developers applied to receive the early SDK since May 2012! By April 2013, around 12,000 developers had their hands on developer kits and were busy developing new software for this new piece of hardware.

Post unboxing

Post unboxing

On the same month, Leap Motion sent an update to pre-order customers, that shipping has been rescheduled for the third time – to July 2013.

The Leap was originally supposed to start shipping on December 2012, postponed to the first quarter of 2013, postponed again to May 2013, and finally got a release date: July 22nd, 2013.

The reasoning that the company offered for the delays was that the already manufactured 600,000 units needed further testing, but it seems to me that the company wanted more time to get a strong software base for its application store as well as more time for debugging so as to allow for the smoothest release they could do and avoid faulty hardware, or software.

What's included

What’s included

So what’s in the box?

  • Leap Controller
  • Warning leaflet in several languages
  • Long USB connection cable
  • Short USB connection cable
  • A cardboard card that refers to Leapmotion website for software and driver download

How does it work?

That was the million dollar question that people has been asking ever since that first announcement. Microsoft/Primesense Kinect just came out in November 2010 and introduced a technology that struck many as revolutionary, and this little unknown company named “Leapmotion” dares to make claims that puts kinect to shame? How is that even possible?

The Leap with sticker on

The Leap with sticker on

Conjectures regarding this intriguing technology ranged from miniaturized radar technology to talk about even more exotic options (aliens anyone?). The truth, as it mostly is, was much more straight forward. The Leap makes use of two small fast and accurate cameras, as well as three infra-red LEDs.

It observes a hemisphere above it for up to a meter in height, and samples it in high speed and accuracy that reaches upto 0.01 millimeters. Using the two cameras it manages to get a precise 3d image of the fingers it’s programmed to follow.

Leap back

Leap back

Does it work?

Yes, it does.

I did encounter some issues while installing, but they were more due to my enthusiasm: hooking up the device before bothering with the software download lead to an old developer version driver download which was not very compatible with the new software.

After using system restore to correct my erroneous ways, I reinstalled the software and everything became nice and shiny.

A few issues to mention before continuing:

  • The controller is sensitive to strong lighting. The reason is pretty obvious: The infra-red leds being used in it are influenced by strong light and especially direct sunlight. This may influence accuracy and ability of the Leap.
  • The Leap tends to grow warm. However, I have left it connected overnight, and it continued working without any issues even though it did grow warm.
Leap evolution

Leap Evolution

The Leap controller is a small box measuring 8 cm long, 3 cm wide, and 1.1 cm tall. It’s very light and weighs about 30 grams, and is made of black plastic (top part which is semi-transparent) surrounded with an aluminum bezel (which also acts as a heat sink).

This all means it’s very portable. You can carry it around in your pocket, and if you already installed the drivers and software off the internet, you don’t even require an internet connection to start working. Downloaded Software includes the device driver which installs two icons on your task bar. one deals with flicks (gestures) and their setups, and the other gives access to the controller settings and it’s “Airspace” applications store.

All this refers to working with Windows 7, as that is my system on which I tested the Leap. Windows 8 offers some more ease of use and there is access to the Airspace Applications store from the tiles interface (formerly known as “metro”).

Control of the operating system does not come pre-activated, probably as developers understood that there is a learning curve to consider, and many would prefer to reserve the use of the Leap for designing or for playing.

In order to activate the windows control module, you will need to open “Airspace” and install an application called “Touchless for windows”. |Then you’ll need to go to the added icon and choose the control level (basic or advanced).

The distinction is required as the higher the level of control, the more dexterity and experience is needed to avoid errors. On the basic level, you can only use some simple gestures. Scrolling through pages, choosing, maximizing, and moving windows and icons.

On the advanced level you can do almost anything. Including zooming in and out (yes, also in google maps, and google earth), and using all ten fingers. This takes time and practice to learn. Accuracy is indeed high, which sometimes proves to be a disadvantage. The human hand is shaking all the time, and even more so when you have to hold it suspended in mid-air while moving it around.

So, not unlike professional photography, you need to learn to steady your hand if you want to keep accurate. Air drawing accurately, choosing icons and windows, and even during gaming. It can also be quite tiring. The controller is built for certain tasks more than others. Music, design (painting, sculpting, building), and gaming are the main purposes the developers had in mind.

These are all time-limited tasks. Even when you paint on a canvas with a brush and oil colors, you cannot do it for more than a few hours a day since your hands and eyes will grow tired. The same goes for the Leap.

Uses, Weaknesses and Possibilities?

The Leap was born out of need or necessity, mostly of designers. The ability to sculpt using a computer, but in the air, seemed to be like an unreachable dream.

Therefore, the target audience for the new controller is as follows: Artists (designers of all kinds, painters and sculptors), computer game players, and musicians. The attraction of being able to sculpt without the use of mouse and keyboard is quite easy to understand. They are not even a bit like the tools we use in the real world. With the Leap you can even take a pencil or a brush in your hand to reach a higher degree of accuracy.

Computer games can get a real boost from such a device. Example? The huge space simulation kickstarter hit “Star Citizen” declared that they will support the Leap even before it got a final release date. Whether it will be for actual flight control, or just for handling some of the ship’s controls and screens, it will add immensely to the gaming experience.

For now, the available games that support the Leap are pretty basic, and most are casual style games, such as “Cut the rope”. The provide joy, but don’t really take full use of the abilities that the Leap can offer.

The way Leap Motion uses an application store shows the direction that the industry is heading to, which started with the desire to copy Apple Computers, and start making money off applications.

However, this decision may limit the ability of the new device from reaching bigger audiences. Even though it is possible to program applications and games for the Leap using HTML5, which has been and is still being done, the PC is not a natural environment for application stores. (No matter what Microsoft would try to tell you – with it’s pushing of Windows 8 and it’s “app store”)

Musicians may find the Leapp an interesting new tool. For now there are only a few basic programs that allow you to use the Leap for playing piano or drums.

Support for graphic programs is still scarce. Autodesk provides a free plug-in for Maya 2014 that allows you to use the Leap with their design suite.

But more common tools, such as Adobe software and especially Photoshop, are yet to be officially supporting the Leap controller. For now there is a 30 USD third-party plug-in on offer that lets you use the Leap with photoshop. I don’t believe many will buy it, as it’s a time limited deal considering Adobe will quite surely release support in future updates. (Leap Motion sat down with Adobe in regard to collaborations in the past)

The Leap might find further use with archeologists, as well as scientists and doctors. Archeologists will be able to explore 3d models of ruins with greater ease, and doctors and scientists will be able to examine molecules, cells, and organs while conducting virtual operations and tests without the need for touch.

Conclusions and Summary

The Leap Controller is a unique and innovative product. It is a second or third generation of motion/volume commercial sensors such as the kinect and others, but is still at a league of its own.

As such, and considering it’s young age, it still has some childhood pains. There are no serious bugs (beyond over-sensitivity, or missing a finger or two), but it’s usefulness is still questionable.

However, I do believe that as it’s usage become more common, as I’m sure it will, people will find new and exciting uses for its capabilities. And with time, the software will catch up and allow for easier work as well as play.

Considering all this, I give it 4 drops out of 5, for a trully innovative product.

4 out of 5 Drops

Raisean

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3 Responses to Leap Motion Controller – a piece of future on your desk

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