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Leap Motion Controller review

This new device lets you control your computer with hand gestures

Published: July 2013
Photo: Leap Motion
Photo: Leap Motion

In movies like "Minority Report," information systems of the future are controlled with simple hand gestures. In real life, at least so far, controlling your computer with hand gestures has been a hit-or-miss proposition. The new Leap Motion Controller ($80) aims to make gesture controls more of a hit. And while it’s not exactly a home run, the Leap Motion Controller has more promise than the gesture controls we’ve used on computers so far.

The Controller is a small aluminum and plastic bar, a bit larger than a thumb drive, that you place on the desk in front of your Mac or PC display and plug into a USB port. The Controller senses the location of both of your hands and all ten fingers in a roughly 2-foot cube of space centered above it. When I tried it out, it quickly tracked even rapid movements of my fingers and the orientation of my hands, then use them to control applications.

How it works

The app that ties the Leap Motion Controller to the computer world is called Touchless; it attempts to map finger movements to the mouse or touch actions your software expects. An onscreen circle lets you zero your finger in on the object you want to touch (or click). Pushing your finger through the imaginary plane above the Controller turns the circle to a solid dot and creates the touch action.

Scrolling is accomplished by a circular up or down "pulling" motion with your hand. There are other gestures for selecting and launching. But the system is still in the experimental category, and time will tell if such controls will become as intuitive and ergonomically correct as mice and touchscreens have been. For me, the actions slowed down my work, and I made a lot of "mis-clicks" when I used the Controller on Windows 8’s tile screen. Also, my shoulder got tired enough that I had to rest my elbow against my chest to keep working!

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Setting up

I encountered a couple of glitches when installing the Controller’s software. First, the installation file I was prompted to download from Leap Motion’s website lacked the EXE extension that Windows needs to know that it’s an installation program. It worked after I renamed the file properly, but many users would have gotten stymied.

I was also prompted for my birthdate after establishing the required online user-password combo, to which some people might object. Otherwise, the installation went smoothly. And I was entertained by Leap Motion’s introductory video followed by a colorful, musical interactive session to get me used to the kinds of hand motions I would have to create.

The app store

Leap Motion created an online store populated with dozens of developer-created apps—mostly games and creative activities—that use the capabilities of the Controller. For instance, several apps display colorful, moving graphic tapestries that respond to your hands’ movements, sort of like playing in a swirling pool of water or clouds of smoke. (Think ‘60s psychedelics!)

Other apps let you create music by moving your hands and plucking virtual harp strings on the screen, or “finger-paint” a drawing. Still others are interactive games of various genres, including some familiar touchscreen-oriented ones like Cut the Rope. As with typical app stores, some apps are free and some cost a few bucks.

There is a learning curve: Each app uses its developers’ vision of how to translate hand motions into onscreen actions. Some are less intuitive than others. For instance, you can control Google Earth with the Leap Motion Controller, but zooming into the revolving Earth requires a movement downward toward the desk, rather than forward toward the globe. Once you get to a recognizable location, control becomes more familiar.

The bottom line

No one knows whether the Leap Motion Controller foretells a future in which we'll use gesture controls like those in "Minority Report." We can say that the Leap won’t immediately replace your mouse, trackpad, or touchscreen, which allow more-precise, standardized control of existing applications. But it's fun to use. And eventually, gesture controls just might become another way we interact with computers day-to-day.

—Dean Gallea

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