Can The Leap Motion Make A Touchless Touch Screen?

August 7, 2013 by Dave Haynes

My Leap

The very cute little Leap Motion gesture device showed up via the post yesterday, and I had some time this morning and then this afternoon to download the software, plug the thing in, and see what it could do.

For the unfamiliar, the Leap Motion is a gesture sensor that creates an infrared field in front of a monitor and allows you to control that monitor using gestures, responding to the level of five digits and the movements of even one fingertip. It is like Kinect, kinda sorta, but much more accurate and meant for up-close work. The field is roughly the area within a foot or two of the screen, and depends a lot on where you place the little device. Officially, the zone is eight cubic feet, which will mean something to propeller-heads.

That device is a little USB stick that is roughly the same size as the old white iPod Shuffles. It’s a teeny little black glass and aluminum thing that would also be mistaken for the world’s smallest, narrowest smartphone.

It costs $80 and the company started shipping a couple of weeks ago.


I have been following this tech for about a year and was mostly interested in it as a potential alternative to touch screens. Touch overlays are expensive, and depending on the touch technology applied, crappy user experiences. Public touch screens   also disgust germaphobes, or as they are technically known, mysophobes. There is a market for elbow-based touch screens.

So the idea of an $80 touch replacement that didn’t need to be touched, was way more accurate than Kinect, and didn’t need custom-fitting overlays, was intriguing.

So here are my first impressions from the Sixteen:Nine labs (aka my sloppy desk):

1 – Nicely designed and packaged. Nothing cheap about this.

2 – It set up in one go on my Mac. No issues at all.

3 – There was a good video overview and tutorial.

4 – There is an Airspace store where users can download free and for fee “apps” developed to work with the Leap Motion.

5 – There is a tutorial/calibration app that gets your fingertips and gestures recognized, and gives users the most basic idea of how to use this thing.

6 – I downloaded and fired up something called Touchless on my Mac. It is the closest thing I could find to a replacement for a mouse or touchpad.

7 – After many minutes fiddling about, I was left with a feeling of both delight and disappointment. It’s pretty amazing what this thing can pick up and make happen. The apps that come preloaded have all kinds of finger-reading eye candy attributes. However, no one short of a developer that worked directly on the product or application software is going to walk up to a Leap Motion-enabled screen and start using it as though it were a touchless touchscreen. There is a learning curve, and it is fiddly.

IF this were set up to work with a touch screen layout that was just big-assed icons and images, and there was no real fine motor control stuff required to touch a hyperlinked piece of text or an X that closed something, then maybe it would be better and could be somewhat intuitive

I found I had to hold my hand in a certain way and point my index finger in a certain way, and at a certain pace, to get things cooperating. I ended up in “Oh Screw It!” mode quite a bit, sending me reaching back for a reliable, accurate mouse.

As I fiddled around a bit more, I discovered more and more capability and what you need to do to get those capabilities on side. However, what would happen one time wasn’t always repeatable unless you had the muscle memory to do it JUST the same way again.

Does this mean the Leap Motion as a touch alternative is just not on?

Hell, no.

The product has been on the market a couple of weeks and there are all kinds of developers fiddling with it. The replacement of touch is a popular topic in the user forum, and there are undoubtedly many people who see more business opportunity in replacing a touch overlay than making some gesture-based game.

There may be some technical limitations to what this thing can do – like the size and range of IR zone that can pick up the gestures. You don’t have to be right in front of a monitor, so the gesture area could be 10 feet away using a very long USB cable. But it’s not clear to me if the little reader on a shelf at the base of a large portrait display would pick up my gesture at 24 inches above that. Maybe, but it’s hard to test that on an 11 inch MacBook. The gesture stayed within the pixels of my screen, so I suppose that resolution on a much larger screen would pick it up as well. I dunno.

For $80, it is a good investment for any company doing interactive. Undoubtedly, the apps are going to get better and the user learning curve will end up having a much shallower grade. I’m happy I have one and am oh so briefly one of the cool kids. I’d rather have this than be walking around with a set of Google Glasses (people now referred to as GlassHoles).

Anyone else with Leap Motion impressions to date?


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