Forget the touch screen. The newest way to operate your computer? Gesture control via Leap Motion.In 2002, the year steven spielberg’s film Minority Report first appeared at the local multiplex, Michael Buckwald was 13 years old — barely old enough to watch the movie without adult supervision but old enough to remember its most striking scene. In it, Tom Cruise plays a futuristic cop who scrolls through video evidence of a crime using nothing but hand gestures to control the images.
Buckwald still recalls how that cinematic moment stirred the wild frontiers of his imagination, with its flashy promise of a cool, high-tech tomorrow.
He waited. And he waited. And he waited — as did many others.
Tomorrow, it turned out, was more distant than he thought.
“It’s like flying cars,” Buckwald says. “We have a great desire to see the world that we’ve been promised. And we get very frustrated when it takes so long for that world to come along.”
To hear Buckwald tell it, though, that future, long stalled, has finally arrived in the form of a San Francisco startup that he founded with a childhood friend. The company is Leap Motion, and Buckwald, now 24, is its CEO, overseeing a business bent on doing what the mouse once did: revolutionizing the way we interact with computers.
At the heart of the venture is a tiny motion sensor that connects to a computer via a USB port, allowing a user to control what happens on the screen with a flick of a finger or the wave of a hand. Like other motion trackers on the market, the Leap Motion Controller, which is due to hit retail shelves next month, has immediate gaming applications (already, you can slice bananas on Fruit Ninja as never before). But its potential, Buckwald says, extends far beyond that. Unlike popular motion trackers like Microsoft Kinect, which responds to full-body movements (making it ideal for, say, dance games), the Leap Motion sensor locks in on the fingers, tracking all 10 digits in real time to within one-hundredth of a millimeter of accuracy.
The technology’s fidelity to the smallest movements allows for unprecedented precision. With Leap Motion’s device, you can sweep, point, grab and pick up objects, manipulating them for myriad pursuits from constructing a 3-D model to playing a virtual instrument to shaping a vase on a digital potter’s wheel. Buckwald sees a day when the controller might be used by microsurgeons to carry out procedures with the aid of robotic assistants.
“In real life, when we pick up an object, we do it thoughtlessly and with 100 percent accuracy,” Buckwald says. “The idea is to bring that to computers. We’re not asking people to learn a new language or to master a series of contrived gestures. We are giving people the ability to interact with computers in the same way they interact with the real world.”
Like many innovations, this one was born in response to a frustration. For more than 30 years, as computers have evolved by leaps and bounds, the basic means of controlling them — mouse and keyboard — have remained largely unchanged. While Buckwald says that the mouse is great for some things, — clicking on a link, for instance, or working in Microsoft Excel — it often bogs down in the realm of three dimensions, where it depends on a deluge of drop-down menus and sophisticated programs that take years to learn.
That limitation was maddening — not only to Buckwald but to his childhood pal from Florida, Leap Motion co-founder David Holz, who often pointed out how absurd it was that while a 5-year-old could shape a Play-Doh coffee cup in minutes, creating a computer model of that same cup took hours of work by a trained engineer.