AUSTIN, Texas -- Leap Motion and its tiny 3-D gesture-control device stole the show at the annual South by Southwest Interactive festival this year, and we got a one-on-one demo of the controller with co-founder and CEO Michael Buckwald.
The 3-inch-long device, which the company is calling a “new frontier for hands and fingers,” sits in front of a computer and can track gestures within an 8-cubic-foot area. It has a sensitivity said to be 200 times that of Microsoft’s Kinect or Nintendo’s Wii and can even track different finger movements.
Buckwald said the idea for Leap Motion grew out of a deep frustration with clunky computer interfaces that involve complicated keystrokes, shortcuts and mouse clicks. Instead, the company wanted to build something that feels intuitive.
Unlike other motion-sensing devices that require users to learn special sign language-like gestures, the Leap Motion device understands movements that come naturally: If you want to zoom in on something on the screen, simply move your hand closer to it; to zoom out, draw your hand back toward your body. Spinning your hand in the air rotates an object on the screen.
Using the device, consumers can play popular smartphone games such as “Fruit Ninja” and “Cut the Rope” and create colorful digital paintings by simply swiping the air in front of their screens. Pieces of digital clay can be molded by making squeezing and poking motions.
The San Francisco company, which currently has 65 employees, announced the 3-D gesture controller in May but waited until SXSW to unveil it on a large scale.
“We wanted to wait for the right opportunity to show it to people,” Buckwald said. “We did private demos at CES, but this is a much better venue for us because we really like the idea of Leap not just as a product but as a movement.”
During the festival, media and conference-goers angled to get a chance to try out the technology at Leap Motion’s tent in a downtown Austin parking lot, and several hundred attendees packed a cavernous exhibit hall at the Austin Convention Center to listen to 24-year-old co-founders Buckwald and David Holz discuss its potential. Demos of the technology, which uses Web cameras and infrared LEDs, drew loud cheers and rapturous applause from the audience.
The Leap Motion controller ships May 13 for customers who pre-ordered; it goes on sale May 19 at Best Buy stores for $79.99. Hundreds of thousands of people have placed pre-orders, Buckwald said, and Leap has sent developer units to 12,000 of the 50,000 developers who applied for one. Apps for the device can be downloaded in Leap Motion’s Airspace app store.
Down the line, Buckwald said, Leap Motion would like to embed its technology directly into laptops, tablets, industrial robots and other form factors.
Leap Motion is joining other motion-sensing controllers, as well as technology such as voice recognition, that is uprooting traditional notions of human-computer interactions. Many are predicting that the future of computing will be gesture-controlled and touchless.
“It’s a trend that’s somewhat inevitable as people become more familiar with technology,” said Avinash Dabir, director of developer relations at Leap Motion.