We're waggling our toes in front of a virtual piano, and the virtual piano is playing along as we do so. But we're not using Kinect on an Xbox One - in fact we're sat in front of a bog-standard laptop. How did we get here? By testing the Leap Motion controller to its limb-based limits, that's how.
The old guard of keyboard and mouse have kept pretty tight company in their decades of complete control over computer interactions, but this little box promised to usher in a brave new world of gesture control. It launched last year, nicely priced at £70 and with 75 apps ready to download, and we were impressed - stating that it just needed more time to develop.
Well now it's had that time, so we've decided to revisit it.
Not so giant Leap
The brave, new Leap Motion world consists of a portable device – smaller than expected, the size of a two-finger KitKat. It sits in front of your PC or Mac (or perches on your laptop) tracking every hand and finger movement you make. Connected via USB, it sucks up power from your computer and it takes so little that battery life is never a worry even when on the road.
Leap Motion’s kept schtum on what’s inside the little box but an online teardown revealed two CMOS sensors peeking up at all that hand wriggling and finger flailing. All you need to know is that the controller’s sensors are accurate up to 0.01mm, so unlike Microsoft’s Kinect every nudge, shake and pinch counts.
On the software side there’s the onscreen Leap Motion control panel and Airspace Home launcher, the hands-free app store, but that really is it.
Inside Airspace Home you’ll find an orientation app that displays digits on screen as glowing skeletal hands. Be patient with the intro animation because it's an awesome app to show your mates.
It’s best to think of the Leap Motion controller’s eyeline as a dome around the device – your hands are generally safe behind it, but movement up to two feet above or two feet either side is detected. Thanks to ‘face rejection’ updates the controller manages to stick to ten digits on two hands rather than picking up on every single body part. Making sure not to lean forward too much helps here, but in use it doesn’t interfere with gameplay or controls.
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Neeeed input, more input
First on most buyers’ to-do list is OS control. Leap Motion’s own free Touchless for Windows and Mac apps aren’t as fully worked out as we’d like, even one year after launch. BetterTouchTool for Mac (£free) is a more reliable choice, allowing you to program your own gestures to a list of commands: two finger swipe up to zoom in, clap to return to desktop, circle clockwise with one finger to mute. Quick and accurate, it’s a popular app that lets you delve as deep as you like for good, clean, futuristic fun.
When it works, the Leap controller really impresses, but this ultimately depends on the app. It’s a much more fluid experience when there’s no need to recreate specific gestures such as the annoying hand stretching needed to ‘play’ the piano in Fingertapps Piano. Instead your hands and fingers are able to move about more freely in apps and games such as the brilliant arcade-style Dropchord, ubiquitous Fruit Ninja, mesmerising Gravilux and Google Earth. Then again, the latter’s controls are too sensitive - the slightest flick sends you zooming skyward when the aim was to pan leisurely over South America.
While we’re grumbling, here's another one: be prepared to suffer Leap Motion Fatigue, a distant relation of Photoshop Claw, after a long session. Don't be ashamed to lean your elbow on the desk.
Swooping, hovering, circling and waggling soon become second nature. The one gesture we have issues with is the poke, or jab. Put simply, with that movement we want to make contact with something – anything – and instead we’re left prodding forwards into thoin air like a constipated E.T.
There’s nothing satisfying about it compared to a mouse click or a finely tuned bit of haptic feedback on a touchscreen. Happily, plenty of app developers have completely ignored this gesture (though not Leap Motion itself), choosing instead to make quick one-fingered hover do the equivalent of a click.
With its Airspace store, Leap Motion’s put together a very respectable selection of official apps and plug-ins. Admittedly at launch there were a mere 75 free and paid-for apps rather than 75,000, but in the past 10 months that number has increased to over 200. And while that's still hardly a massive total, we’d swap half the apps on Google Play for a handful of awesome uses for the Leap controller.
It feels a reasonably mature platform now, too: in August 2013, it passed the one million downloads mark, a lively forum-based community now has its own tile in Airspace and geeky hacks show no signs of slowing down. Want to punch virtual sharks? Just strap a Leap Motion to an Oculus Rift.
But the really note-worthy apps aren’t new Kinect-style games but rather ones such as Leap Motion’s own Freeform, a gesture-controlled 3D sculpting app that can send designs to 3D printers. It takes a while to get the hang of modelling in thin air but Freeform’s a hit with professionals who can put the hours in to master it. A relatively niche application, sure, but Leap’s super-accurate motion detection really comes into its own here. Fruit Ninja, this is not.
We were fans of Unlock, for Windows (£free), which scans a biometric reading of your hand to use instead of a typed password at the log-in screen, but this is no longer supported. Still, there's plenty of uses including air typing with the DexType Chrome plug-in, AirPoint - which lets you use your hand as a substitute laser pointer when giving presentations - and music apps such as Geko MIDI.
Hiccups abound though, and a bad experience with an Airspace app can be offputting. We especially wish Leap Motion would lay down the law on how to quit apps, as this currently varies wildly from a clickable cross to an Escape-plus-Q-key combo to a finger hover near the bottom of the screen.
Still, if you do find Airspace too limited (or frustrating), there are plenty of hacks to make the Leap Motion controller take charge of just about everything – from Surgeon Simulator on PC to an RC model boat.
Leap Motion long-term test Verdict
It might feel strange poking your index finger shakily in the direction of a screen, rather than touching it or using a mouse, but put in the practice and you'll soon be gesturing your way around Mountain Lion, Cut The Rope and the New York Times.
For the right users - everything from industrial design offices and DJ booths to operating theatres - it could be a real tech revolution.
At CES 2014, Leap’s CEO showed off the platform's second-gen gesture-tracking software. Its first big update, it focuses on allowing more natural gestures and can even track hands when its view of your fingertips is blocked. The update is yet to roll out, but it's far from the only feature coming soon to Leap Motion.
The Leap Axlr8r program for ten start-ups has been running since January with the aim of finding genius new uses for the device: sign language translation, touch-free medical OSs and robotic arm control, to name a few.
The tech has also been built into laptops such as HP’s Envy 17, further increasing the chance of it crossing over into the mainstream.
It's not there yet though. While cheap enough for the gamble and sci-fi enough to silence your mates, Leap Motion still has its limits as a works-every-time desk accessory.
Maybe this time next year, eh?
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