Leap Motion Controller: No longer just science fiction

"Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything."

Strong words from the man who introduced to the world the revolutionary iPhone six years ago.

At the time, many people didn't think the mobile phone needed any reinvention, until Steve Jobs showed us how multi-touch technology can be utilised effectively on a mobile device, which opened up many new possibilities.

The launch of the iPhone, and the iPad three years later, taught us and the industry one thing: there's certainly no end to innovation.

Because of this, tech consumers today are hungrier than ever for new innovation. We are now more excited about new technology, as advancements in technology have become more apparent in our daily lives.

Last week, a revolutionary product made its debut and has grabbed a lot of attention as it's unlike anything that anyone has ever seen before.

It's a promising breakthrough technology that could change the way we use our computers the way touch screen computing revolutionised smartphones and tablets.

This new product is called the Leap Motion Controller, a device that brings advanced motion-sensing technology and gesture-based interaction to any laptop or desktop computer.

Developed by a startup company in San Francisco, California, the Leap is designed to take human-computer interaction to a whole new level, beyond the traditional mouse and touch-based interface that we've all been accustomed with for many years.

Think of this technology as something that you've seen only in Hollywood science fiction movies such as Iron Man and Minority Report, only that it's finally becoming a reality.

Motion-sensing isn't exactly new. It's already been made possible in the living room via game consoles such as the Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360, basically for motion-sensing games and navigating to the onscreen menus.

The Leap is a step forward for this technology. Unlike the Kinect, which does whole-body tracking in a living room space, the Leap is designed to accurately track finger motions.

By connecting the peripheral to the computer via USB and placing it in front of the monitor, the Leap allows us to perform touch-free 3D gesture motion with our hands to interact with information on the computer's screen more intricately.

This brings a whole new and unique user experience, from navigating a website with a wave of our hand and using pinch-to-zoom gestures on maps, to high-precision drawing and manipulating complex 3D data visualisations.

I personally think that this technology has arrived at the right time, when the all-familiar multitouch interface has expanded recently from smartphones and tablets to laptop and desktop computers.

The problem with touch-based computers (particularly the Windows 8 laptops and all-in-ones that have been popping up) is that while it certainly is a technically useful feature, ergonomically it's not really a comfortable one.

Touch surfaces are not suited for vertical positions if you plan on interacting with them for long periods of time. It's fine when used in short bursts such as on banking kiosks or a touch-screen fridge, but not for hourly session of productivity.

Lifting your hands from the keyboard and mouse/trackpad and reaching out to operate a computer's touch screen repeatedly can get tiresome; you'd start to get tired and your arms would feel like falling off.

This has been coined by engineers as "Gorilla Arm".

This is why Apple avoided this direction with its line of Macs and instead focused on developing multitouch recognition for its trackpads and mouse. As for Microsoft, I think it's about time the company brings Kinect to the personal computer.

The Leap is the solution to "Gorilla Arm". By lifting your hands just slightly off the keyboard, you can make more ergonomical gestures with your fingers to interact with the display, as opposed to one-to-one movement with the screen like you often do with touch.

The same gestures on a touch-based interface apply such as swipe and pinch to zoom, only that you no longer have to stretch your arms to reach for the screen surface to do all that. The compact controller, which houses the sensors, can be used with any size display, even a massive HDTV that's used as a monitor.

While there is certainly room for improvement (as this technology is still at its infancy), the Leap is set to push 3D gesture-based interfaces forward.

The company behind this project claims that it has already partnered with ASUS and Hewlett Packard to embed its technology within their computers.

The Leap is also more than just a peripheral; it's an entirely new platform which opens up new possibilities for applications built for the technology.

There is already a dedicated app store for the Leap, where you can find more than 50 apps that truly take advantage of the system. For now, they are mainly graphical simulators and gesture-based games that demonstrate the technology's potential, but I am optimistic of what the future holds.

For now, the device is not necessarily a must-have, but for a price tag of US$79.99 (S$100), it's hard to resist not getting one and pretend to live the life of Tony Stark.

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