By this time next year, touchscreen computing may seem as old-fashioned as keyboards, if start-up Leap Motion can successfully build on its buzz. On Wednesday, Leap announced that its 3D, hands-in-the-air motion controller for computers goes on sale in May for $80.
The company is taking pre-orders now, which it began doing last year. By mid-May, orders will begin shipping and Best Buy stores will exclusively handle the 3- by 1-inch controller in the U.S. Last month, Leap Motion announced a global OEM partnership with computer maker Asus, which will bundle the technology with its new high-end notebooks and premium all-in-one computers later in 2013.
Leap Motion has been attracting attention not only because of the low price, but more important because of the purported fine level of control -- a 150-degree field of view, an in-the-air separate tracking of each of 10 fingers and of each hand, and a resolution of up to 1/100th of a millimeter. The company said its product is as much as 200 times more sensitive than other, existing motion-control technology like Microsoft's Kinect controller.
'Less than a Year'
One demonstration app in particular shows the resulting capability: an in-the-air, block stacking-and-balancing game called Block 54 that requires subtle hand motions. A user needs to precisely control the block stacking, as one would do with the physical game, but moving hands and fingers in empty space. Leap Motion has said that its technology is the only one that can provide the accuracy and response needed for that kind of game.
In announcing its product sale schedule, co-founder and CEO Michael Buckwalk noted in a statement that the controller will go on sale "less than a year after we introduced our technology." The product supports Windows 7 and 8, and Mac OS X 10.7 and 10.8. Users will also have access to the Leap Motion-specific app store, Airspace.
If the technology becomes popular on Windows 8 machines, it could conceivably compete with, or replace, that operating system's emphasis on a touch interface. However, both touch and in-the-air gestural interaction have the same potential user experience issue that could limit its use: arm fatigue.
'Could Be a Game Changer'
Leap Motion has seeded the developer community with an SDK and prototype controllers, and has received an overwhelming response, with more than 40,000 developers expressing interest and 12,000 receiving free software development kits. Some of the announced applications include plug-ins for 3D design software Autodesk, Corel's Painter apps, the Weather Channel app, Disney Interactive's Wreck-It Ralph, and the Sugar Rush racing game.
Other applications reportedly in development include ones for driving cars, flying planes, or providing assistance for physical rehabilitation.
Charles King, an analyst with industry research firm Pund-IT, said Leap Motion applications in business could include specialized cases where "interacting with a mouse or keyboard is difficult or impossible," such as a mechanic in a garage or a worker on a factory floor.
As to whether Leap Motion could move beyond such niches and become mainstream, King recalled there "was skepticism when it was first announced about whether it would ever come to market." Now that it is, he said, if "the company delivers the experience it is claiming, there is a possibility it could be a game changer."