The Leap Motion releases today, promising to change the way we interact with the personal computer. It delivers on that promise, but change could mean for better or worse. On which side of the spectrum does the Leap land?
Perhaps oddly in this day and age, the Leap Motion is a cheap, potentially revolutionary computer and video game peripheral that wasn’t funded on Kickstarter. Essentially, it’s an inexpensive, easy-to-setup Kinect for the PC. It’s a small — 0.5 inches tall, 1.2 inches wide, 3 inches deep, and weighs 0.1 pounds (1.27×3.04×7.62 centimeters) — unobtrusive device that’s similar in shape and size to one of the rectangular iPod Nanos. With a sleek black-and-silver aesthetic, it looks like a first-party Apple peripheral for the MacBook Pro — it won’t interrupt the vibe of your sweet battle station. It plugs into your computer through a standard USB 3.0 connection, and its placement is only limited to the length of the USB cable. Setup is simple: Plug in the Leap, press “Next” a few times on the installer, make an account for the Airspace Store (the Leap’s app store), then either download or load some apps. Easy peasy. What is not easy peasy, unfortunately, is using the Leap.
The goal of the Leap, of course, is to allow you to just sit back in your chair, relax, and effortlessly wave a hand or poke a finger in the air to interact with your computer. It has not yet achieved that goal, mainly because of that “effortlessly” qualifier. Using the Leap is a chore.
The Leap creates a three-dimensional motion and gesture recognition zone around itself that measures in at eight cubic feet. Eight cubic feet sounds like a pretty large area in which to wave your hands, and considering both you and the Leap are sitting comfortably in each other’s vicinity, you would think that eight cubic feet would allow you to sit back, relax, and control your computer with the ease of a technopath. Unfortunately, the Leap seems to have a sweet spot of recognition much smaller than that eight cubic feet, and even more unfortunately, the sweet spot doesn’t ever seem to be in the same spot from app to app. To make that matter even more frustrating, you aren’t ever in the same spot. When you use your computer, you likely shift around in your chair, maybe lean your head in one hand while you use the mouse with another, sit up straight, slouch, and so on. Sneezing even puts your body in a slightly different place. While using the Leap, you constantly lose that sweet spot of being recognized, even if you’re completely aware that you have to remain still.
If you have only been paying attention to the Leap in an ancillary news capacity, you might think that it just plugs into your computer, and after installation, you can control your everyday computer tasks with the wave of a hand. This isn’t the case — the device requires Leap-specific apps, downloaded from the Airspace Store. You’ll find apps with which you’re familiar, such as a Cut the Rope, while other apps such as Google Earth have Leap Motion support. However, the Leap isn’t designed to take over your computer’s input methods. There’s an app for the Leap, Touchless, that attempts to achieve this goal — it essentially turns your monitor into a virtual touchscreen — but it’s disappointingly frustrating to use. This seems to be more due to the Leap’s finicky recognition than it is due to a poor implementation of the app.
There are quite a bit of mobile-style games, meaning nothing too in-depth, but some fun experiences to kill a few minutes with. Again, though, the Leap’s finicky recognition makes the majority of experiences to be had less than ideal. However, the recognition seems to vary from app to app. One game, Boom Ball — a 3D iteration of Breakout — works well for the most part. In a 3D space, the paddle is closest to you on the screen, while the blocks are in the distance. You simply wave your hand around to control the paddle and bounce the ball back toward the blocks. For some reason, Boom Ball also has acceptable recognition within menus — you can easily hover over an option and choose it without any hassle — whereas navigating menus in just about every other app I tried is a frustrating experience.
While Boom Ball worked well enough to show what the Leap is going for, Double Fine’s music visualizer game, Dropchord, on the other hand, is a good example of what the Leap currently seems to be. The game itself is simple, but fun. Little circles appear on screen within a larger circle, which is the field of play. Using a finger on each of your hands, you point at the screen on either side of the field of play, and it creates a line between your two finger points. You touch the little circles with the line by moving your fingers around the field to maneuver the line, the little circles clear, and you get points. Sadly, the Leap just can’t seem to notice your fingers on a consistent basis, mainly because you’re moving them around and the Leap loses them. Furthermore, at the two different desk-and-computer setups I tried the game at, neither of which allowed me to rest my elbows on the chairs’ armrests. Regardless of how in shape your shoulders and forearms are, holding them up without rest and moving them around quickly becomes tiring, giving you gorilla arm.
Sadly, the finicky recognition isn’t just inconsistent the one way, as it also tends to notice appendages that it shouldn’t be noticing. A majority of the apps require you to point with one finger, but the Leap often times notices your knuckles on the hand you’re pointing with, and classifies them as other fingers. You can’t exactly remove your knuckles, so you end up moving your finger around a bunch in order to find a sweet spot of the Leap noticing your pointing finger, but not its companion knuckles. In the same vein, if you rest your head in the hand that isn’t in use, the Leap might recognize that hand’s fingers, as well as what appears to be your nose. Again, though, these issues seem to be more or less apparent from app to app.
You can calibrate the Leap in an attempt to rectify these issues, but even the calibration tool is finicky. A window appears on screen, at which you have to point the top part of the Leap. A score meter sits at the bottom of the window. You have to wave the top part of the Leap around the window, which moves a circular cursor and paints the window green. The more of the screen you paint, the more the score meter is moved. You have to reach a score of 80 for the Leap to be calibrated. At one computer, I was able to reach 80, but the Leap’s recognition didn’t improve when I loaded up some apps for a second time. At my more powerful gaming rig, after about five minutes of trying as patiently as possible, I could not crack the 65 mark and gave up.
Another odd issue is that you’re sitting right in front of your monitor, but have to wave your hands around in front of it. This partially obstructs your view. Your hands have to be situated above the Leap, and you can move the Leap anywhere the USB cable can reach. However, if you move it off to the side so you have a clear view of your monitor, you now have to awkwardly stretch your hands off to the side, and the gestures don’t exactly give you a precise feeling. When the Leap is off to the side, and you have to poke the screen to select an icon, for example, you’re now poking the Febreze bottle you keep next to your desk rather than that icon on the screen.
The majority of my time with the Leap was spent being frustrated. Either the Leap wouldn’t recognize my motions or appendages on a consistent basis, or it consistently recognized everything it shouldn’t, causing interference. I am honestly not entirely sure where the problems lie. Some apps, like Boom Ball, worked great — seemingly with the same exact motions and gestures with which other apps had trouble. The majority of the apps, though, were frustrating to use, and due to Boom Ball‘s success, it’s difficult to tell whether or not the problem is with the Leap, or with the apps’ understanding of the Leap. Either way, though the Leap is only $80, it would seem like that money is better off buying you a week or two of groceries until the Leap can get itself sorted out. Until then, keep your fancy gaming mouse plugged in.