Leap Motion first impressions: There's work to do

Leap Motion

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After more than a year of hype and some impressive canned demos, Leap Motion is finally here.

The $79 motion controller for Windows and Mac is available for purchase, and its app store is up and running. I've been playing with a Leap unit provided by the company since last Thursday.

It's hard not to be impressed with Leap Motion on a basic level. Here's a motion controller that's more precise than Microsoft's Kinect, for a fraction of the cost, in a package small enough to sit discreetly on a desk. Although Leap doesn't have a video camera like Kinect, it's able to detect the motion of individual fingers.

But is it practical, and does it work as well as it looked in all the promo videos we've seen over the last year? That's where things get a little messy.

Leap Motion
Leap Motion's Airspace Home is used to launch most of
LM's roster of promising, if inconsistent apps.

Leap's biggest problem is inconsistency in the quality and behavior of its apps, which for the most part are launched through an app hub dubbed “Airspace Home.” Some apps, such as Corel's Painter Freestyle and Leap's own Touchless mouse control app, use a 3D vertical plane to register input. Move your finger beyond that plane, and it's as if you're clicking with a mouse. This works terribly in practice because you have no physical feedback for when your finger has crossed the plane. In Painter, it's too difficult to control when you're actually drawing, and in Touchless, it's too easy to click on things accidentally.

Touchless, for that matter, is somewhat disappointing as a mouse supplement. While it'd be nice to use the app for leaning back and reading through Web pages, scrolling can be tough to initiate in an accurate and predictable way. The app also doesn't support multiple monitors.

Leap Motion
Photoscape is one of the few apps that uses
the technology to its advantage.

Other apps handle input better. Photoscape, a stylish viewer for online photo sources like Instagram and Flickr, uses a quick point gesture to simulate a mouse click, and uses hand swipes to scroll through menus. Additional navigation is based on the position of your hand in 3D space. The app is intuitive and fun, and doesn't run into issues with accidental input.

Not quite done cooking yet

The big takeaway here is that Leap and its developers have a lot of work to do on making motion controls as consist as possible. One size doesn't need to fit all, but Leap still needs to figure out what works, and prescribe some best practices for app developers. The idea of passing some arbitrary vertical plane to initiate input needs to be thrown out entirely for apps where accuracy is key.

Leap's other big challenge is to come up with some must-have apps for the device. Right now, the collection consists mostly of games or silly diversions, with wildly varying degrees of quality. Some of these games are enjoyable enough—Double Fine's Dropchord being the most notable example—but they don't make a very strong case for PC motion controllers. For this kind of entertainment, you'd be better off in the living room with Kinect.

That's not say there aren't any useful apps available. Unlock is a quick and easy way to log in to Windows with biometric authentication, and for Mac users, Swish provides simple gesture controls such as app switching and volume adjustments. There's also a surprisingly robust selection of MIDI control apps for musicians.

At the moment, though, Leap doesn't provide any truly compelling reasons to get on board. At $79, it's basically something you might buy if you're interested in motion controls, and want to see where the technology goes. It should be fun to watch Leap's journey continue, even if the product isn't ready to be part of your daily computing life.

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