Motion sensor gives users mouse-free experience

Leap Motion allows users to control movement on a computer by simply moving their hand.  (credit: Jason Chen/Junior Photographer) Leap Motion allows users to control movement on a computer by simply moving their hand. (credit: Jason Chen/Junior Photographer)

Apple made things simple by giving people a smartphone with one button. But imagine ditching the button and commanding a computer without any tactile controls. Imagine controlling a computer by moving your hands in front of a screen, and you’ll get the Leap Motion Controller by Leap Motion. Like a miniature version of the Microsoft’s Kinect, the controller allows users to twist, turn, pinch, and manipulate all sorts of visualizations with two hands and 10 fingers with no direct contact required.

The controller contains two cameras and three infrared LED sensors. With all of these working together, the controller can detect a user’s hands and fingers on three axes. It recognizes location, speed, and specific gestures like quickly drawing a circle in the air with your finger.

The device itself is incredibly small — about the size of a few sticks of gum — and is conveniently USB powered. Adding it to your workspace will only be an issue if you are already strapped for USB ports or have your desk space meticulously laid out. Otherwise, it is a completely unobtrusive device.

Installing the software is fairly straightforward and quick, and starts out with an orientation to the device. The orientation is the first interaction users have with the controller, and serves as a good way to introduce the device to friends.

It’s flashy and entertaining to see that hand motions above your computer affect particles onscreen, and to see wireframes of your fingers, hands, and wrist appear before you like something out of Tron or Iron Man. The precision is remarkable, and there is such a low latency (the time delay between performing an action and seeing its result onscreen) that it appears there is no delay between what you do and what you see on your computer.

Beyond the orientation experience, what’s available on Airspace — Leap Motion’s app store for software designed specifically for the motion controller — is currently lacking. This is to be expected for a relatively new device, as most of the apps are focused on the whimsy of motion control, not exploring the device’s full potential.

However, among the bounty of gimmicky apps are a few that demonstrate Leap Motion’s long-term potential. Molecules, a pre-installed app, allows users to view 3-D models of various molecules and chemicals. Users can rotate, scale, zoom, and pan around the various molecules with very intuitive and natural gestures. The accessibility is the selling point of this free app, which explores the capabilities the Leap Motion Controller has as an educational tool. There is a lot of potential for this technology to be used in classrooms across the world.

This potential can be skewered by poor control design, though. Another app, the already popular Google Earth, is pre-installed and given motion controls through the device. However, using the app is nearly impossible. As soon as it loads, poor hand placement can jettison Earth into a crazy spin that is difficult to stop. Additionally, actually navigating this 3-D globe is hard; every twist and turn the planet makes seems to be accidental, and never what the user intended to do with his or her hand placement. Luckily, most of the software available isn’t this difficult to control, but a poor control interface like this can ruin a user’s experience with an app, and with the Leap Motion.

The technology is impressive, but the current software available leaves something to be desired. However, this is a much better situation than having broken technology; better apps can and most likely will be made soon, utilizing the full potential of the Leap Motion Controller.