Six months of anticipation versus six days of evaluation. It seems like an unfair ratio for something hyped as having the potential to forever change our idea of computer interaction. Such is the case, however, when the Next Big Thing takes months to ship and minutes to test.
For the past week, I’ve been acquainting myself with the Leap Motion. I ordered mine on a day in 2012 when snow covered the ground; it arrived in the middle of a blazing heat wave. This spring at SXSW, after watching a number of demos in person, I became even more excited to test the device when it finally arrived. My intention was to determine what feasibility the device may have for use on upcoming projects.
Setting Up the Leap Motion
For those who don’t know: the Leap Motion is a gesture detection system whose most intriguing feature is the low price point. At just $80 per unit, the promise contained in the product’s attractive packaging is compelling. The Leap Motion provides a way for users to achieve touchscreen performance on a laptop or PC, without actually having to touch anything.
At just eight centimeters long and no more than three centimeters wide, the Leap Motion is also very tiny and lightweight compared to other gestural interfaces. Setting it up is about as easy as it gets: you simply plug the device into a USB port, place it on flat surface within arm’s reach and download the control software. It works pretty well out of the box, although there is a calibration option available.
Although gesture-controlled technology remains very much in a state of evolution, the Leap Motion does a decent job of establishing a modality for interaction. You can point, flick, shake and hover with both hands, either with finely tuned precision or a broad stroke of the wrist. In no time at all, my wife saw me waving my arms around as if I were hailing a taxi.
The paradox of the Leap Motion’s value is its Airspace app software, which operates as both a user interface and a commercial retail site. You can start downloading apps specifically designed for the device, for both Windows and Mac, with prices ranging from free to nearly a hundred dollars. Although it’s easy to get started using the software, achieving fluency is another matter altogether.
The Leap Motion tracks your movement using an infrared light, such as that emitted by a remote control or security alarm system. The software requires that you keep your hands within a concentric range from the center of the device, and it can be difficult to tell just where you need to place your hands in order to activate the on-screen cursors. It’s also physically tiring to suspend one’s arms for periods of time, especially within a contained range of distance.
I tested a number of Airspace apps, some free and some I bought. The Airspace store works very like a simplified version of Apple’s App Store. A number of apps provide the sensorial experience of controlling sound or visuals, and the resulting experience is pretty cool. For a more practical application, the NY Times app allows you to flick and scroll through the day’s news articles (although I found the interaction to be a little spotty).
Leap Motion Not There Yet
One of the major challenges in using the Leap Motion is that there isn’t anything in the way of visual or tactile clues to help guide the user. I spent a lot of effort idly pointing my finger to detect the “hot spot” of interactivity. Movements aren’t consistent from one app to the next, and even a random hand movement risked being interpreted by the device as an intended command.
This interaction modality is one of the biggest drawbacks I can predict for the use of Leap Motion as a daily tool; again, there just isn’t a standard vernacular of hand gestures that work unilaterally across every app. While desktop applications and websites vary somewhat in functionality, there is a basic vocabulary of direct and indirect manipulations available that provide at least some basis of consistency.
The Leap Motion and Accessibility
Having cited the above criticisms, I’m more intrigued by how the Leap Motion could function as an augmentative device for people with disabilities. For the average person without a disability, I’m not convinced that the Leap Motion is all that useful beyond select tasks.
For someone who needs to test a specific range of motion through repetitive gestures, however, the Leap Motion may offer a unique solution for people undergoing physical or cognitive rehabilitation. I can easily envision a scenario where such games as Fruit Ninja and Cut The Rope are used to measure range of motion, or where something like AirHarp could provide a setting for music therapy.
The advantage of the Leap Motion is its small form factor and intuitive setup. Its disadvantage is the lack of consistency found among its software components. I have a couple of suggestions to ensure that similar gesture controls feel more natural to users both with and without disabilities:
- Ensure real-time response. More complex systems require higher footprints; embrace the Leap Motion’s simplicity by minimizing the load on both computers and users.
- Adapt to new learnability levels. Systems that contain a large vocabulary of built-in fixed gestures can be difficult for people with compromised cognitive ability; users will benefit more from a shortlist of fundamental motions.
- Detect gestures accurately. While systems need to be simple, they must also be able to disambiguate important gestures from the clutter of uncontrollable movements.
- Improve literacy through comfort. Forcing someone with a disability to do a hand gesture that is uncomfortable (or at worst, impossible) provides no more value than having them use a keyboard or mouse.
- Provide ubiquitous familiarity. Computing gestures should reduce the amount of dissonant “noise” in the system by having the most common motions perform basic tasks, and these movements should remain versatile and consistent across all apps.
The Leap Motion is unquestionably a sexy piece of technology, and I’m already excited about its potential in a number of use cases. As a tool for daily computing, I’m not convinced of its everyday value. I certainly can’t recommend throwing away your keyboard and mouse at this time. As a vehicle for designing new forms of interaction in certain contexts, however, the Leap Motion provides an affordable and hackable avenue for exploration.