You’ve probably thought about the future, and while thinking about the future you’ve probably envisioned flying cars, images that seem to be suspended mid-air, and life on Mars. Chances are, you’ve also envisioned a future where our home and office computers aren’t eternally tied to a mouse and keyboard.
The future is upon us. Leap Motion has created a device for use with Mac and Windows computers that allows for a seemingly touchless experience. Touchless motion control has proven to be a rather hit-and-miss venture. Microsoft’s Kinect is not exactly known for its fidelity. But, the Leap Motion Controller looks to change that.
At $80 it is a surprisingly cheap way to experience what the Controller has to offer. But, who and what is it for? More importantly, does it fulfill its purpose in terms of functionality and use?
The device itself is rectangular and no bigger than a standard USB memory stick. It’s certainly compact, so it can be taken anywhere. It has a grippy rubber bottom and the same brushed metal finish that most everyone is familiar with seeing on Apple products.
The device comes with a long and short USB chord so that you may place the device in a spot that is most convenient to you. This may seem a superfluous thing to point out, but how many of us loathe chords that are too short and force us to place ourselves somewhere other than the couch or a comfy chair? I know I do.
My hat is off to the team responsible for the design of the UI for the Controller’s Airspace Home. I should note here that the portals of access for the Leap Motion Controller are split. The Airspace Store is run in-browser and is where users will purchase the different apps that are then run in Airspace Home. The Airspace Store itself is well-designed. Everything is easy to find and operating it is intuitive. It’s not an app store that feels like you’re sifting through piles and piles of unrelated software before you find what you want.
Once you’ve purchased an app from the Airspace Store, the system detects the purchase and downloads the app to your account on Airspace Home. Here, too, the UI design looks very nice. There’s a minimalist influence that is easy to detect. However, unlike the Store, Airspace Home doesn’t break apps down by category, and I’m not aware of any way to categorize them myself. They appear in the order that you download them. It would be nice to have a way of categorizing them so that it is the easiest it can be for users to find what they are looking for.
Speaking of apps, the Airspace Store currently has about 75 apps available for users to download. Some of the apps are free while others cost anywhere between $.99 and $4.99. They range from education tools like Frog Dissection to functionality apps like GameWAVE. Of course, the store is dominated by games. Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope make an appearance alongside other games developed specifically for use with the Controller.
Most of the games are middling experiences. The fidelity of the motion-control experience varies radically depending on which app you are running. I’m not sure if this has to do more with the work on the app designer’s end or if it is a problem with the design behind the motion-detection technology in the Controller itself, but some apps are simply nightmares to control.
As I pointed out, most of the apps in the store are gaming apps. However, I believe that the most interesting stuff going on with the Leap Motion Controller is happening with educational apps and apps that give the device more functionality. Games aren’t really why the Controller exists. The utility and, by extension, prospective success or failure of this product lies in its ability to change how we interface and interact with existing technology. And in order for it to be successful, it needs more apps like GameWAVE, an app that allows the Controller to be used as the controller for PC games, or Touchless for Windows that makes the Controller the functioning device in operating your home computer or laptop.
Functionality is an important point for Leap Motion existentially, because it either justifies the existence of the Controller or dooms it to a piece of periphery tech. Leap Motion have said that the Controller isn’t seeking to replace the traditional mouse and keyboard setup, and that it is, instead, seeking to further enhance peoples’ experiences with their computers by augmenting what they already have.
That would be a valid point, save for the fact that the Controller does everything a mouse does. I found the most useful apps to be ones that gave the Controller more functionality, and that usually meant using it in ways that no longer required me to use my mouse to control my computer. Obviously, you can’t type with it, but there is an app being developed to allow you to do so. So, eventually, it will be able to function as a keyboard as well. The functionality question is an important one for Leap Motion to answer because it lets people know what their Controller is for.
A less discerning and less interested party wouldn’t necessarily “get” the Controller. That is to say, the Controller doesn’t have mass market appeal… not yet, anyway. I definitely think it could. But, I think the risk-adverse talking points around not wanting to replace traditional interface control options is holding the Controller back from being the next big thing for home computers and laptops. Eventually, this sort of technology will become standard in such devices. Instead of kicking the can down the road, Leap Motion should be leading the charge.
Questions around functionality aside, the Controller itself manages to delight and infuriate. I will say, however, that the setup is one of the most painless and streamlined I’ve ever experienced. You simply download Airspace Home, setup an account, and you’re ready to go. There’s minimal fuss and it is easy enough to have the Controller up and running within a few minutes of plugging it in.
The experience of actually using the Controller vacillates between frustrating and sublime. Fruit Ninja for example, was practically made for this. I enjoy playing it with the Controller more than I do on my other touch-enabled devices. The various experimental apps, like Midnight or Kyoto, are also a pleasure to control and are downright mesmerizing in their beauty and fluidity of motion. There’s no doubt about the fact that the technological engineering behind the device is very good.
However, I did have experiences that made me wish some apps out of existence. The Frog Dissection app is one such experience. I actually couldn’t control it at all. Any time I put my hand over the device, the app freaked the frog out (hehe… see what I did there?) and started paging through diagrams of frog parts like they were only seconds away from being thrown to the flame. It was actually uncontrollable, and no amount of recalibration helped. Another app that managed to make me step away from the device for several hours was Fingertapps Piano. Essentially, it’s an app that allows you to play an octave and a half of a piano. It is absolutely infuriating. My general advice is to steer clear of any apps that require an entire hand or hands to control. They tend not to work very well.
The thing is, I’m not entirely sure the bad experiences are the fault of the Controller itself. It could just as well be that the bad software design comes from app developers not being used to working with this kind of technology. Eventually, this will change as development studios become more familiar with the technology.
I feel like the Leap Motion Controller is stuck in some sort of strange Purgatory. Leap Motion haven’t posited it as a revolutionary piece of technology, but instead have called it a controller, so as to avoid competing with more traditional means of interface control. Ultimately, I think this holds the device back; but, that’s more a business challenge than anything else.
As it stands, the Leap Motion Controller is only going to appeal to techies. People who are interested in the tech industry and its new offerings will find this a fascinating device and ponder at the future this sort of technology has ahead of it. For gamers, it is more a novelty than anything else. And for your everyday Jon and Jane Doe, it simply lacks the ability to make a case for itself because it can’t claim to provide a functionality beyond what you get with a mouse, an unfortunate position Leap Motion has put the device in as a result of bringing it out of direct competition with traditional interface control technology.
It really is a fascinating device and I think it has potential to gain traction outside of techies if Leap Motion plays its cards right. It is well-made, the tech engineering behind it is absolutely mind-boggling in the best ways possible, and the core of the user experience is solid. Designers and anyone who uses more than one computer screen will get a lot of mileage out of the device with apps like Touchless for Mac or Windows, respectively. Aside from that, I’d only recommend you buying one if your curiosity simply cannot be satiated.