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Leap Motion on the Mac: Review

Every few years a new technology is unveiled that gives us a glimpse into the future of computing. The newest such innovative technology is arguably the touchscreen, particularly ones on the iPhone and iPad, which have reshaped the way we use and interact with our mobile devices. When you think of the way we might interact with our computers in the future, one can’t help but think of sci-fi movies and the use of gesture-based interactions, similar to the XBox Kinect. Enter Leap Motion, an innovative little device that aims to give you gesture-based controls for your PC and Mac. Read on to see how it works on an iMac.

Most current desktops do not have the functionality of a touchscreen, unless you own an Apple Magic Trackpad for your Mac or a brand new all-in-one touch Windows 8 PC (let’s not go there). But gesture-based controls aren’t yet available for any computer. Leap Motion launched as a kickstarter project last year raising over a whopping $30M for this gesture-based controller, with the minimum contribution costing $80. It seems the masses are ready for the next generation of computing on desktops, but how well does it work?

What’s in the Box

Leap Motion ships in small and attractive packaging, something Apple fans can appreciate. Inside the box are the controller and two USB cables – a short and long one. The controller is a small rectangle with a black glass screen wrapped in aluminum, with a little green LED to the right indicating it is powered and connected. It looks as if it was made to match my 24″ 2007 iMac (minus the grey colored cable).

Setup

Setup is a breeze. Simply connect the controller to your Mac’s USB port, then log onto http://leapmotion.com/setup. Choose the Mac download installation .dmg file, then install it like any other Mac app (you know, before the Mac App Store days). Immediately after the installation completes, an app called AirSpace launches. Think of this as a Launchpad for the Leap Motion, populated with an Orientation App and four included apps. There’s also a shortcut for its very own App Store, apps that come built with Leap Motion functionality. The Orientation app immediately launches after that, which guides you through a basic tutorial on how to use it. The gesture-based controls are very easy and intuitive, however, I found myself re-doing the Orientation to do the drawing tutorial three more times (more on that later).

How Does it Work?

The controller’s sensors are facing upward with two cameras and three infrared LEDs. It senses an areas of approximately one meter hemispherically. It tracks your fingers – something important to note – in the observed area, unlike the XBox Kinect. So don’t expect to perform any Tom Cruise Minority Report movements across your living room floor just yet. Gesture based controls are used in apps, and there are already third party apps that are aimed at using gestures for normal everyday computer use.

What I Like

Most apps available that I’ve used are either games or music apps – both of which are really fun to use. I found the preloaded Lotus app the most fun to use. You make music based on hand and finger gestures. Apps like these are a natural fit for something like Leap Motion. The sensitivity is impressive, the slightest movement makes delicate and intricate sounds. 

I also enjoyed the free New York Times Leap Reader app. As fun as a music app is for the Leap Motion, I believe in order for it to gain traction with the general public it has to be able to help us with everyday computing tasks. Reading the news is one of those tasks. The app is limited (paywall alert!) as it only has a handful of articles. Simply twirl your finder in circular motion to the right or left to navigate through news cards, then hold the pointer on any article for a small period of time to select it (a gesture commonly used in Leap Motion apps). Then use the same twirl motion to scroll up and down the article, then shake your wrist when you’re done to return to the main interface.

I downloaded a free third party app called BetterTouchTool that allows you to create gestures to control core aspects of OS X. I created two-fingered gestures that move windows to the right and left, and there are tons of available options for the Mac desktop. Think of this as Automator for your hands and desktop. I can see apps like this taking off and being very useful, as it’s quite satisfying to move windows and apps around with a simple gesture. 

But what I like the most is the overall fun factor this device provides. I haven’t had this much fun on my Mac (or any desktop computer for that matter) in years – perhaps this is its biggest feature. I felt like I was learning to use an entirely new type of device altogether, the experience was like no other. I found myself standing most of the time, something I have never done with any computing device, and that is always a good thing.

What I Don’t Like

When Steve Jobs got on stage to announce the Macbook Air in 2010 many wondered if the new device would have a touchscreen. To the chagrin of many in attendance, Steve Jobs said “you can’t touch your laptop’s screen…or your arms will fall off“. After playing the preloaded game Dropcord on Leap Motion, I agree with the late Mr. Jobs wholeheartedly, as my arms were burning after only a few minutes. Perhaps this is the intention of the app, either way I don’t believe this to be very ergonomic.

I found Leap Motion’s controls to be erratic, often I’d repeat the same gesture two or three times. And when the device doesn’t recognize the gesture, I’d often become frustrated and repeat the gesture faster than the previous, decreasing the chances of the device to understand what I was doing. This is the first iteration of the hardware and software, I’m sure with a few hardware and/or firmware updates and better apps the experience will improve over time.

But perhaps the most frustrating aspect is the counterintuitive nature of the gestures in some of the apps. Remember the drawing tutorial in the orientation app? I repeated the orientation three times and not once did I feel comfortable with the gestures. I often at times motioned gestures of a touchscreen, swiping and trying to press on objects which registered nothing in the app. The New York Times app, albeit easy to use after a couple of tries, includes gestures I find not as intuitive as ones you’d use on a touchscreen device. Perhaps mimicking touchscreen controls will help assist new users adapt to such a new way of interacting with their computer.

Buy/Don’t Buy

Rarely do I recommend first iterations of devices, and unfortunately the Leap Motion is no exception. For $80 this device reminds me of the Magic Trackpad when it first launched. I remembered how counterintuitive it seemed to use trackpad gestures on my Mac. Over time i got used to it, but I still haven’t fully replaced my mouse with it, as every once in a while I’m using an app that requires me to use the good old mouse. I did say I haven’t had this much fun on my Mac in a long time, which is true. But for a relatively steep price and a limited amount of apps, it may be wise to wait and see if more apps and improved functionality await Leap Motion’s future.

About Dominick DeVito

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