Intuitive, controller-free interaction is the current poster child of cutting-edge entertainment technology. Pioneered in 2006 by Nintendo’s Wii, the motion-control craze soon spread to Microsoft’s Kinect, Sony’s PlayStation Move, and even to the PC market via Razer’s Hydra. Of these, none has had more success than the Kinect in breaking out of the video game sector and attracting independent developers. Because of its open-source nature–Microsoft released the SDK in November 2010–and its non-reliance on an “anchor” object (the Wiimote, or the PS Move’s “wand”), the Kinect has found usage in everything from amateur robotics to three-dimensional virtual boardrooms.
A small San Francisco startup company called Leap Motion, however, seems poised to steal Microsoft’s motion-control crown with their new offering, the Leap 3D control system. It offers massive improvements over the Kinect in terms of sheer resolution and detail, affording users control to the hundredth of a millimeter.
Nowhere near as bulky or cumbersome as the Kinect, the Leap 3D’s hardware is limited to a small USB sensor which creates an “interactive space” of approximately four cubic feet. No, it won’t allow for full-body motions–Dance Central 2: Leap 3D Edition probably won’t be a big hit–but it will allow Leap Motion’s pioneering and highly advanced software to interpret minute hand signals while remaining “more responsive than a touchscreen or a mouse, and just as reliable as a keyboard,” CNET says. CNET has also compiled a short list–most likely not comprehensive–of possible functions, including:
- Navigating an operating system or browsing Web pages with the flick of a finger
- Finger-pinching to zoom in on maps
- Letting engineers interact with a 3D model of clay
- Precision drawing in either two- or three-dimensions
- Manipulating complex 3D data visualizations
- Playing games, including those that require very “fast-twitch” control
- Signing digital documents by writing in air
Clearly, Leap Motion is serious about its new ideas; serious enough, at least, to secure a cool $12.75 million in funding. It’s also hoping to attract developers right from the get-go, currently only scouting for a few hundred but intending to eventually expand and send out anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 developer kits. Its end goal is to create an innovative, open ecosystem with its own self-contained App Store, affording buyers almost limitless functionality.
Interestingly, though, Leap Motion doesn’t seem to see its new device as a direct competitor for the Kinect. Rather, as CEO Michael Buckwald says,
Those developers are running up against a wall, because the Kinect is a fantastic device for dancing games, but it’s hundreds of times less accurate than this technology and not capable of tracking fingers, so it’s not a very developer-friendly platform for right now. And we want to provide a way for those developers to use a technology that will let them build applications that are much more complex, much richer, and much easier for consumers, as well as those high-end users to use so that they can do more powerful things.
Preorders for Leap Motion’s $70 device begin today (at least for US customers), and you can get in on the hand-waving action here. Expect to see your Leap 3D sometime around December or January.