July 26, 2013 at 11:17 am

Leap Motion 3D Sensor: Geek Toy or Mass-Market Game-Changer?

Like some of you, we’re more than a little obsessed with the Leap Motion Controller this week, an $80 module released on Monday that lets you wave your hands in certain gestures to control stuff on a screen. But will the Leap and other 3D motion sensors ever achieve the ubiquity of the mouse, or the trackpad? Or are they, like the supposedly city-changing Segway or the 3D television, mostly suitable for those who seem to enjoy technology for its own sake?

To find out, we’ve squandered precious hours of productivity on simple-yet-addictive Leap games like Cut the Rope. We’ve also checked out the 14 music apps available for Leap so far, though, and the results were mixed, or worse.

It's way too difficult to control effects in the remix app Swoosh.

Despite having infrared cameras that can simultaneously track all of your fingers to within a hundredth of a millimeter, the Leap Motion Controller still leaves much to be desired in situations that require the utmost precision. Take the virtual DJing and remixing app Swoosh (pictured to the right). Certain hand gestures designated for one function accidentally triggered a different function 8 out of 10 times, making it almost impossible to do anything on beat, or to make anything sound deliberate for that matter.

Although our results were pretty poor with Swoosh, at least remixing songs with your hands accomplishes something. Some of the music apps in Leap Motion’s Airspace App Store seem to be having a bit of an existential crisis, as in they don’t really do much at all. Yes, the visuals in Gravilux are like the second coming of the original iTunes visualizer, and they’re nice and all, but what do you do with an app like Lotus after playing with its four interactive music toys for five minutes or so?

The interface in Lotus is pretty, but what else?

For the most part, our testing revealed that the most complex music apps for Leap Motion don’t work too well, while the super-simple ones don’t have much of a point.

What then, you might ask, makes an outstanding music app for Leap Motion? At this point, it looks like simplicity rules on the Airspace app store, so long as the app has a point, which is why we had so much fun with a good old arcade-style score challenge game called Dropchord.

A music-themed game, DropChord only requires two fingers and a two-dimensional range of motion to play. The players holds two fingers at points on a circle to control a bar (or in geometric terminology, a chord… get it?) that spans the circle’s length, scrolling over notes within the circle to advance to the next ‘track’ (the game’s term for a level) and avoiding ‘scratches’.

The visual effects are awesome, with an original soundtrack of pulsating electronica mix that’s also available on iTunes. Most importantly, the game actually works the way it’s supposed to.

Dropchord is fun because it works.

Others have noticed Leap Motion’s unweildiness, but part of the problem is that it’s just so new. App developers have yet to come to grips with Leap, so to speak, creating a chicken-and-egg problem of sorts.

“[Leap Motion will] need to sell a few more [controllers] before developers recognize it as a viable platform for development and devote strong resources to it,” said Patrick Hackett of Double Fine, which created DropChord. “There are very low barriers to entry, but past hobby projects, it’ll take some sales to get more developers excited about it. I truly think Leap can get there, it just may take until the holiday season.”

Increased sales would certainly help, but maybe there’s another way for Leap to find its rightful place in the pantheon of user interface disruptors.

Using a three-dimensional controller to interact with a two dimensional screen doesn’t seem like something most people will want to do, at this point anyway. However, two fringe, geek-toy technologies — 3D sensors and 3D displays — could unite to become one big mass-market phenomenon.

Reaching into a 3D display to access music albums, documents, browser windows, and the like could eventually become commonplace. There was a time when the mouse seemed weird, too.

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