Leap Motion review: Minority Report tech hasn't quite arrived

Credit: Raymond Wong/DVICE

It's every geek's dream to live their sci-fi movie fantasies out in real life. From touchscreens to Kinect to Siri, we already have a lot of the technologies made famous from the likes of Star Wars, Star Trek and countless other movie and TV productions. But one movie's technologies that we constantly keep trying to make a reality are the motion gestures used by John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) in Steven Spielberg's 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report.

In 2010, Kinect jumpstarted what would become the very actual possibilities of regular people using their arms, hands and bodies to control video games with serious depth. While Kinect's limited hardware capabilities stifled games from truly taking advantage of its motion gestures, it nevertheless helped set in motion the idea that we, computer users, really want motion gestures that are more precise for everyday computing.

Then, a year ago, Leap Motion presented its slightly-larger-than-a-USB peripheral that blew us and almost everyone who tried it away. And this past Sunday, the Leap Motion Controller finally shipped to Best Buys across the U.S., only days after the corresponding Airspace app store launched.

Naturally, as a website obsessed with the future, we had to try it out. Is the Leap Motion the $80 gadget that'll finally fulfill our wildest Minority Report dreams or just another gimmick?

Leap Motion Controller 101

The Leap Motion Controller (henceforth referred to as the "LMC") is a tiny little block — for lack of a better word — that's milled out of aluminum and contains three infrared lights and two cameras that are used to create an invisible tracking field directly above it. A person's hands and each of their ten fingers are individually tracked within this defined space, which measures around 8 cubic feet in the X, Y and Z axis.

Configuring the LMC is a plug and play affair via one of two USB cables — a two-foot or a five-foot long wire — that comes in the box. Then, it's only a matter of going to Leap Motion's setup page and downloading the Leap Motion app which guides you through installing the Airspace app for Windows or Mac.

It should be noted that there are certain requirements to use the LMC. You'll need a PC or Mac with at least an Intel Core i3 or AMD Phenom II processor, 2GB of RAM, a USB 2.0 port, and an Internet connection (for installing the software and downloading new apps). PC users need to be running Windows 7 or 8 and Mac users need the latest OS X 10.7 Lion.

Mastering Gestures Is A Discipline Of Its Own

Like any new input device, there's a learning curve to using the LMC, and you'll be reminded of it every time you use a new app that has its own set of gesture commands. For simple educational apps such as Molecules and the New York Times app, the gestures are as basic as moving your hands forwards and backwards and rotating a finger clockwise to zoom in and out and scroll pages. But gestures get increasingly more "advanced" when you start venturing into productivity apps such as AeroMIDI or try configuring regular OS commands for natural gesture recognition via Touchless.

Whereas we all know that a down gesture on a touchpad scrolls down and an up gesture scrolls up, or pinching two fingers in and out zooms and shrinks an element, there are no universal gesture guidelines (at least not yet) for the LMC. This makes it very frustrating when you try to attempt one gesture from one game or do something such as open and close your fingers and expect an element to expand or contract, only to find it doesn't work like that. At many times, the LMC is a frustrating experience and requires incredible patience just to adjust to in different apps.

But as they say, the bigger the risk, the bigger reward. It's incredibly satisfying when you actually nail certain gestures and controls down. Sadly, we suspect many average users won't have the patience to wait to "master" the LMC for a gazillion different apps. Mom and dad aren't going to spend an hour learning how to use the LMC. Nobody should have to constantly think about how to initiate a command.

App Store Infancy

That said, the LMC is almost accurate as the countless video demos out there portray it to be. We say almost because like so many infrared-based devices, proper lighting is crucial. In poorly lit environments, the LMC easily got confused in terms of tracking our fingers properly. And while the LMC can easily recognize 10 fingers with ease, it often recognizes your knuckles too, which makes precise gestures in some apps such as the psychedelic music game Dropchord more difficult. At moments like that, it just reminded us how vital physical buttons are and how slow gesture controls still are.

It's also difficult to judge whether the LMC will be successful based on its initial library of apps, since it'll only grow once more developers get their hands on it. At the time of this review, there are 76 apps that span a spectrum of categories that include: Creative Tools, Education, Experimental, Productivity & Utilities, Science, Games, and Music & Entertainment. Apps are priced anywhere from free to $99.99. Fifty-five apps are compatible with Windows and 57 apps are compatible with Mac. Some apps are strictly platform-exclusive.

Certainly, many of the apps feel more like demos than full-fledged apps with deep experiences, but that's to be expected at launch. We might be a little biased here, being serious gamers and all, but the LMC lends itself to being a very good platform for casual gaming. It's no surprise that 47 of the 76 apps in the Airspace app store are games, the largest category of apps, so far. We hooked up our MacBook Air with the LMC connected and then mirrored it over to our HDTV via AppleTV and AirPlay and the result was a very entertaining experience. We expect game developers to be very excited by the LMC's capabilities.

Still A Work In Progress

Although version 1.0 of the LMC is a finished product from a hardware standpoint (naturally, upgrades will happen), it's far from a finished product as a whole. Apps are a work in progress, as is the Airspace app store. No, what the LMC offers is a promise for the potential that gesture controls can be: more accurate and more precise. Leap Motion doesn't want its hardware to be limited to a USB accessory; it wants the technology to be built into PCs on every level (HP and ASUS have already announced plans to bring integrate LMC tech into their computers) until it becomes standard.

If the mass-adoption for the LMC ever gains any traction, that's when the gesture-filled Minority Report future will arrive. We're getting really close to that sci-fi tech, though. Right now, the LMC is a cool toy, a fancy trick that makes people's eyes light up in amazement the first time they see and use it. Tomorrow, the LMC just might be the new way to operate a computer or play a video game.

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