When Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Minority Report controls a computer only by waving his hands, it looks really cool.
But in the real world, using touchless gestures to interact with a PC can be a study in frustration. That was my take after testing the Leap Motion Controller, a new device from a San Francisco startup that brings gesture controls to Macs and Windows-based PCs.
The Controller is an $80 device about the size and shape of USB flash drive. It has a pair of cameras that point upward and detect hand motions made in a cone of space over the device. Employing particular gestures, users can open applications, scroll through documents, rotate virtual 3-D objects and zoom in on pictures.
It’s like a miniaturized and less costly version of Microsoft’s Kinect, but more limited in range and capabilities. The Controller detects only hand and finger motions. And where Kinect can detect motion from about a 10-foot distance, the Controller’s range is about 2 feet.
The Controller is easy to set up. It connects to a computer via a USB cable, which also provides its power. To get it to work, you download and install some software from Leap Motion’s website.
Leap’s software provides a link to the company’s app store, which offers about 100 gesture-controllable programs. Among them, you’ll find games, including a version of the popular smartphone title Cut the Rope; programs that let you play virtual musical instruments; and educational applications that let you do things like dissect a virtual frog. You’ll also find programs that work at a more basic level, allowing you to launch traditional programs or scroll through Web pages using gestures.
Some of these apps are clever and compelling. Cyber Science’s Motion app allows you to rotate a virtual human skull, take it apart and examine it piece by piece. With Vito Technology’s Solar Walk, you can take a virtual tour of the solar system, zooming in on particular planets and moons or panning way out to see the location of our local planetary group within the Milky Way galaxy.
But I found that these apps were often just as compelling and usually much easier to control when using a mouse or trackpad than with gestures.
The Controller can be both hypersensitive and wildly inaccurate when tracking users’ movements. I frequently found myself inadvertently launching programs or selecting menu items when trying to use gestures to do other things.
We may end up with a touchless computer seen in Minority Report, but the current iteration of Leap Motion’s Controller doesn’t get us there.