Leap Motion: As far as controllers go it’s not a big leap forward… yet

Leap Motion is expected to debut on Monday its $79.99 gesture-based motion controller, but after a little time spent playing with it –and even after my six-year-old daughter took her turn, we’re not sure this is the interface of the future. It lacked the intuitive connection between thinking and doing that Apple’s touchscreen delivered or the instant appeal that the Nintendo Wii or the Microsoft Kinect both offered.
While Leap’s Airspace app store is stocked with some fun games, the Leap Motion controller isn’t as simple to use as one might hope, although it’s early days and with the right app it might become an awesome experience.
First, a bit of history and details on the Leap Motion controller. The company behind it, Leap Motion, was formed in 2010 to build a gesture-based controller that “sees” your hand moving in a field above a three-inch bar packed with sensors and compute power. The device has a 150-degree field of view and can accurately track the movements of all 10 fingers down to a 1/100th of a millimeter.
But in practice, while the camera’s ability to sense where the fingers are is fairly accurate, getting used to the interface is tough. This is far from intuitive. There are two issues to counteract, both of which might be surmounted with more experience and practice. I’m just not sure I want to make the effort given the apps available and how many of them are just as fun using a touchscreen.
The first issue is that it’s somewhat awkward to hold your hand up in front of your computer and gesture for any length of time. It’s tough to keep your hand almost perpendicular to the screen for long and it’s also tough to drop the hand without initiating further action. And the second issue is that, while the accuracy is good, every slight motion moves the pointer or causes a reaction. This frustrated my daughter to no end as she played the Clay Jam game. It drove me nuts as I tried to play the Chordion Conductor music app — I could not make it hit the keys I thought I was hitting because my gestures were too big.

The Airspace Home screen.

The Airspace Home screen.

This is probably a good time to mention that I’m not a great gamer. I am hopeless when it comes to anything requiring adept A-B button-pressing or even some of the Nintendo Wii-based game controller skills, but I enjoy playing games and having fun. With more practice I imagine I’d solve the accuracy issue, although making smaller gestures defeats the purpose of the wider field of view the Leap has.
But the other big question outside the gesture-interface is whether or not the apps are worth the cost of the controller? Would I pay $80 so I could down a free, Leap-enabled version of Cut the Rope, or the beautiful, free Flocking app? The business model for Leap relies in part on the app store and taking a cut of the revenue from the apps sold, so this is more than just a question of whether or not there are enough apps to get people to buy the controller — it’s also the means by which Leap Motion will sustain itself.
There again, I’m ambivalent. The New York Times has already released an app, and there are plenty of options to entertain folks in the company’s Airspace store. Airspace is the app from which you play all of the Leap-enabled games. The question is will any of these games drive mass market adoption of an $80 peripheral?
I was super excited about the Leap and some of that excitement has dulled after playing with it, but I’m also coming from a non-gaming perspective. I was far more excited about the larger potential for gesture-based UIs — because I think that a new user interface can change the way we use computers. As I wrote in January when I covered Leap Motion’s $30 million funding round:

That’s a nice win in the computing space, but the real question for me is can a new UI change how we interact with computers, and perhaps help keep the PC relevant? David Holz, the a co-founder and CTO of Leap told me that he helped invent the product because he wanted to do things on his computer, like play an instrument or make a model, that were made far too complicated by the existing programs limited by drop down menus necessitated by having a keyboard or mouse interface.

That’s the reason I gave it to my daughter to play with. This is a child who grew up on touch screens and refuses to take calls that aren’t video-enabled. I figured she would use it and adapt to it better than my mouse-clutching, keyboard-toting self. That she struggled so much with it, made me think it still needs some work — either the interface or the ways the apps take advantage of that interface.
However, a more-than-casual gamer might find this experience awesome. For the most part, I thought it felt more like a gimmick. But for those not expecting magic right away, or those willing to wait for more developers to release apps, the Leap might grow into something amazing.