Hands On: LEAP Motion Controller

By Miraz Jordan

The Airspace Store.
The Airspace Store.

I loved the idea of the Leap Motion Controller so much when I first wrote about it in Tech Universe in May 2012 that I'd pre-ordered one even before I'd finished writing that day's column. Then I had a very long wait till it was shipped. In the end I was given a review unit to keep and a free account at the Airspace Store just a day or so before my own unit arrived. Since then I've been playing with the controller so I could write a review based on experience rather than first impressions.

At least a couple of decades ago I first learned to use a computer mouse. I don't really remember how it went for me, but I've seen others learning to use a mouse, and it's hard going. At first you run out of room on the desk, the cursor shoots wildly around the screen, and you have to match up two-dimensional hand movements beside the computer with the position of the pointer on the screen. Chances are, you'll accidentally click on all kinds of things, drag things around that you didn't mean to and generally cause chaos. Persevere though, and eventually you'll find yourself controlling the mouse as though you've always used it.

In my case, I graduated from using the mouse to using a trackpad, and then a graphics tablet. I've also experimented with controlling my computer by voice. Each time I had to learn and practice that control all over again. Each new input method required new learning and new physical movements or modulation of my voice. Each was frustrating at first until I learned the appropriate fine control.

It's no surprise then, that my first experiences with the Leap Motion Controller were a disaster. I found myself gesticulating wildly in the air with little effect. Apps launched that I didn't want to launch, but things I was trying to click didn't. Sometimes though, I hit the target. Sometimes I hit my screen. Yet the longer I persevered, the harder I tried, and the more I reread the instructions, the easier it became.

It's actually incredibly satisfying to poise your finger in the air, move it slightly, and cause something on the computer screen to happen.

The Leap Motion Controller is a tiny box - about 2 fingers wide by one finger deep and one finger long. It connects to your computer via a USB cable - one long and one short cable are supplied. Install the free software, register on the Airspace Store and you're ready to go.

The Store has a selection of apps, some free, many in the US$0.99 to $5.00 range, with a few more expensive outliers. More apps are being added all the time too. Some are very specific, allowing you to create music, for example, while others more generally allow you to control the computer as a whole.

I'm afraid as a words person who doesn't do more than listen to music or look at art that I found those creative apps simply puzzling and frustrating. One app I really enjoy though is Boom Ball - a game where you control a ball that's trying to knock down or explode blocks.

My initial control gestures were big, too big, in the way that beginner mouse users need more desk space. Several times I whacked my monitor with my enthusiastic swings to hit the ball. Gradually though I've built up finer control and now my main problem is my arm gets tired, holding my hand in mid-air with finger pointing to the screen. The problem's worse when I sit with my laptop on my lap, and not so bad when I stand with my laptop at chest height and the controller some 30 cm lower on the desk.

Sadly my attempts to fly the fighter jet in Solar Warfare failed miserably. I seemed to spin wildly out of control, all guns firing, even when I tried very hard to make the correct gestures and even after calibration. I've never been a gamer though and almost certainly would have failed just as spectacularly with a joystick.

Start up the free Airspace app then click the tile for the Airspace Store to check for new apps. Available apps include games, science, education, utilities and creative tools. Most are available for both Windows and Mac, while others are restricted to one platform.

I've had the Leap Motion Controller for a few weeks now, and sadly quickly abandoned it for getting real work done. That could be a mistake, given how it took me a while to learn to correctly work first the mouse and then the graphics stylus. Now I love my graphics stylus and that learning period was incredibly valuable.

The free BetterTouchTool app allows you to "configure gestures to do anything on your Mac". There seem to be hundreds of settings you can add, but there was its problem. I started with just four: one or two fingers up or down to call up the Application Switcher, click, and scroll up and down. When I tried the gestures it all seemed a bit hit and miss.

The thought of creating and setting up dozens or even hundreds of air gestures to control my Mac in general is daunting. At least with the keyboard, mouse and trackpad the gestures and controls already exist in the OS and apps, are standardised and need simply be learned.

I still love the Leap Motion Controller and hope it succeeds, but I'm not sure it will succeed with me. I enjoy playing Boom Ball, and find my control is increasing as I practice. The Creative Tools and Music & Entertainment apps just aren't my thing, though I could see others being thrilled by them.

I guess in some ways the problems with the Leap Motion Controller are the problems that bedevil all really new things: we're unfamiliar with them and need to practice using them; they're a bit pointless when they try to take over doing what existing things already do well, yet their new niche hasn't yet been clearly delineated.

The strength of the Leap Motion Controller is in its 3D control possibilities. A mouse or graphics tablet is already perfectly useful for 2D actions such as selecting a menu item or drawing a shape. Apps need to find a way to really make the most of the user's ability to work in three dimensions, with varying hand formations, to do things that a mouse or joystick simply can't do. Meanwhile users will need to learn how to control their hands, fingers and arms, to use the device without tiring, to hold hand positions such as single finger outstretched or all fingers spread.

I suspect the clearest benefit of the Leap Motion Controller will be for those who work in 3D: surgeons could perhaps use it as part of preparation for a complex surgery; sculptors could form and examine their intended creations; architects could work on building ideas. And, of course, it has a lot of potential for games.

Writers like me though may be happy with the good old keyboard and mouse for getting work done.

Leap Motion Controller
Works with Windows and Mac

From the product literature:
The Leap Motion Controller contains 2 camera sensors and 3 infrared LEDs. Leap Motion's software translates the information from the camera sensors into 3-D input.
The Leap Motion Controller senses natural hand and finger movements within 2 feet above the controller, out to 2 feet on each side (150 degree angle) and a depth of 2 feet on each side (120 degree angle).
Accuracy: Leap Motion technology is accurate up to 1/100th of a millimeter.
Speed: Leap Motion technology is incredibly fast, with no visible lag, and can capture over 200 frames per second.

Miraz Jordan is a writer at knowit.co.nz

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