Since Steven Spielberg expertly crafted it a decade ago, the world has been clamoring for a user interface similar to what was found in sci-fi thriller Minority Report. Even the inkling of flipping through applications and swiping screens in mid-air made geeks tingle all over, but aside from expertly developed hacks on the Xbox Kinect, nothing definitive seemed to break through and truly give the public that enticing functionality of the future.
That is, until now. After more than five years of development, a proprietary technology has emerged that synthesizes the shape and movement of the human hand to produce movement onto a computer. It’s called The Leap — and for an astonishingly low price of $70, you can begin to control a computer with nothing more than your hands, as early as next February.
“We really wanted to build a device that would actually be leaps and bounds better at doing a lot of things that most people want to do with their computers,” says Leap Motion CEO Michael Buckwald. “And in order to do that, you need to be able to track fingers, and you need to be able to do that at a deep, centimeter level.”
Mashable spoke with Buckwald about the journey his company took to develop The Leap and bring it to market, as well as an inside look on how it works and what we can expect come February.
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How The Leap Was Born
The development of The Leap came from a very simple problem: Buckwald felt discouraged at the difficulty of assembling a 3D object while utilizing a mouse and a keyboard.
“If you want to make a cup, any five-year-old can take a piece of clay and make something that resembles a cup,” Buckwald says. “But on the computer, the process is very difficult.”
From then on, Buckwald began collaborating with Leap Motion CTO David Holz to develop new technology that would take computing to a more “hands-on” level. While he wouldn’t give specific details about how The Leap is made, Buckwald says the technology capitalizes on pre-made components to keep the entire system low-cost.
“The underlying method we use is a radical new approach that has never been used before,” explains Buckwald. “It’s simultaneously very inexpensive and also more powerful and more accurate.”
Accessibility remained a top priority throughout the development of The Leap. Buckwald says that when he and Holz began shopping the technology to venture capitalists, the team was heavily encouraged to eschew the greater public and sell The Leap as a professional device with a barrier of entry — costing in the tens of thousands of dollars. The team staunchly blocked the request and continued down the path of a consumer product.
“The reason we created this technology was because we felt like there was a serious problem with the way people interacted with computers, and we felt like until the problem was solved, mankind would be missing out on an enormous amount of potential, power and opportunity.” Buckwald says. “We wanted it to be ubiquitous immediately.”
With just a few months to go before its commercial release, The Leap is already showing promise in pre-orders and has amassed 26,000 applications from geeks looking to take advantage of the hardware’s SDK. But for now, Buckwald says priority is smoothing out bumps and pushing the product to market.
How it Works
The Leap capitalizes on what the Leap Motion team refers to as Natural User Interface (NUI) through a tightly-packed cluster of sensors. In fact, these sensors are packed so snugly that LeapMotion had to make the device larger only so it would be tangibly convenient for users. The result is a meshed sensor field that can see even subtle gestures in all five fingers on each hand at any given time.
“If the user is looking at a 3D model of something, they should be able to reach out and pick it up and move it,” says Buckwald.
Operating The Leap is as simple as connecting the device via USB and waving your fingers. From there, The Leap’s built-in software calibrates and launches into a host of features — including a rather uncanny 3D representation of the user’s hands. But The Leap is not limited by software constraints; the device also works seamlessly with applications that were built to take cues from touch technology. The best part of the whole system is that it doesn’t rely on pre-designed gestures to direct software.
“We don’t think people should have to learn sign language to operate a computer,” adds Buckwald. “They don’t need to memorize a bunch of different pre-defined movements.”
In beta testing with groups, Buckwald says that he’s received positive feedback on The Leap. He attributes this to the long hours spent developing the minute real-time visual feedback of the product — meaning that changes to software through The Leap can be executed as quickly as possible. He adds that many people have actually “felt” software through The Leap, manipulating digital objects in space and zooming in and out.
“Because you can see a hand on screen, and it so precisely mirrors your own hand, it really starts to feel like that is your own hand very quickly,” says Buckwald. “Some users report feeling as if some contact has happened when something touches the virtual hand on screen.”
The Future of Touch
As The Leap moves to market, Buckwald and his team are preparing to fill the hardware with as much value as possible on first shipment. One of the ways they’ve been able to do that is by allowing independent developers to get their hands on The Leap’s SDK for their own software development. The goal, Buckwald says, is to have a fully stocked proprietary app store available by launch.
“The apps are everything from three-dimensional representations of social networks to a group of engineers looking for ways to do interactive 3D models, to specialized enterprise use cases for industries,” Buckwald explains. “There’s really a wide spectrum, and that’s something we’re encouraging.”
Of course, the innovation doesn’t stop with The Leap or the app store. Buckwald hopes that the development of an NUI will make it simple for users to interact with their computers the way they interact with the real world. He envisions Leap technology transcending a computer peripheral mold and entering as a main player in all sorts of technologies — from phones to tablets and even displays.
“If 10 years from now, everyone was walking around with transparent, head-mounted displays, then hopefully the way they’ll be controlling the displays with that Leap technology.”