For the last six years, game consoles have been the developers hot spot for motion control, but finally good old computers are getting some love. A startup called Leap Motion has announced the development of the Leap 3D motion control device that is sensitive down to 1/100 of a millimeter - that's 200 times better than other sensors (read: Kinect). At this resolution, the Leap software is able to resolve the motion of individual fingers, allowing for intuitive gesture controls like pinch-to-zoom, highly accurate virtual drawing, and manipulation of 3D models. The device, which is just about twice the size of a USB thumb drive, sensitively detects motion via infrared light within a space of 4 cubic feet, which is effectively the working space in front of a desktop or laptop.
Available for preorder now for $70 (over three times less than the Kinect for Windows) and expected to release this winter in limited supply, the Leap sensor is a huge step forward toward the era of Minorty Report-esque computer interfaces.
For a look at the sensitive and responsive capabilities of the Leap, check out the demo:
The possibilities with the Leap seem endless, especially since the hardware is small enough to work with mobile devices and other things that are now using touch screen interfaces, like appliances. In a statement, CEO Michale Buckwald said that the inspiration for the Leap came from working with 3D models and the frustration in "the gap between what's easy in the real world but very complicated to do digitally." In light of this, Leap Motion is focused on building an ecosystem of software around the device by making developer kits available for free. This strategy is likely one of the reasons that the startup received $12.75 million in Series A funding recently, adding to the $1.8 million it already raised.
The Leap device arrives at a perfect time now that motion control has seen widespread adoption. It started with the Wii Remote motion controller, which was released by Nintendo in 2006 and made more sensitive with the MotionPlus attachment in 2008. In November 2010, the Microsoft Kinect sensor hit the shelves and helped vault the Xbox into an entertainment platform. Although a PC version of the Kinect became available in February of this year, it's retail price of $250 puts it out of reach for many computer users who can stick with the technology they are most comfortable with: the mouse.
Compared to the Kinect, the Leap Motion technology brings 200 times greater sensitivity in a smaller device at a third of the price in just two years. Wow.
For a second look at what the device can do, you can watch this video from CNET:
One group of people that will likely gobble up the Leap is the robotics community. We've highlighted a number of Kinect hacks that developers have created to enhance robots, such as making an iRobot see the world, having a robot mirror someone's actions, and the Kinect-hack competition from ROS. Imagine what robots can accomplish when the sensitivity is so much greater in the Leap.
Functionally, the Leap opens up the possibilities to perform specific, gesture-friendly tasks much more easily than is currently possible. Digital signatures, for example, are sloppy with a mouse and, though USB drawing tablets work well, are pricey and can be challenging to find other uses for, that is, if you aren't an artist. The demo makes it pretty clear how much easier it could be just to move a pen or a finger in the air to sign something.
Still, as cool as the Leap device seems to be, the keyboard and a mouse have persisted because they are the easiest ways to get things done on a desktop (and why the pen stylus never got traction). For Leap to change that, a host of powerful software needs to be developed that allows for common tasks to be done not just in a cooler way with gestures, but in a much more efficient way like touchscreen technology has accomplished. And that's a tall order for current operating systems that are designed around the 2D interface of a monitor. Still, interest in developing a Minority Report interface inspired a Kinect hack over a year ago at MIT, so it's much more likely that the Leap or some other gesture technology will eventually be embedded into a keyboard, allowing for the best of both worlds.
The technology from Leap Motion just shows how far precise 3D motion sensing and gesture control has come. When these kinds of sensors are combined with voice recognition software, we will be stepping into a science fiction movie right at our desks.