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Leap Motion: 3D hands-free motion control, unbound

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The startup's technology puts sub-millimeter accuracy at user fingertips, offers control gestures like pinch-to-zoom, and promises new applications that make the Kinect and its kin look like yesterday's news.

By Daniel Terdiman, CNET

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Credit: Leap Motion

Hands-free motion control, a technology pioneered by Nintendo's Wii and later improved upon by Microsoft's Kinect, just took a very big leap forward. Industries from gaming to surgery to architecture, engineering, and design may never be the same.

With the unveiling today of its Leap 3D motion control system, a San Francisco startup called Leap Motion has, well, leapfrogged the state of the art in this young field, giving users the ability to control what's on their computers with hundredth of a millimeter accuracy and introducing touch-free gestures like pinch-to-zoom.

Leap, which comprises both a small USB input device and a sophisticated software platform, is expected to cost $70. But while users will have to wait until early next year to get their hands on it, what the company is showing today seems likely to get developers and users in a wide range of industries very, very excited.

By now, most people have seen Kinect in action. The Microsoft system has become a huge success by allowing developers to make games and other software that let people control what's on their screens with their bodies. That's great for dancing, fighting, and sports games, plus many others, but Kinect's ability to recognize motion ends at users' hands.

Leap, by comparison, can sense motion down to the most subtle movements of a finger, which the company says is 200 times more sensitive than anything else on the market. The system creates a "three-dimensional interaction space" of four cubic feet and is more precise and responsive than a touchscreen or a mouse, and just as reliable as a keyboard.

That means everyone from game designers to surgeons to architects and engineers may soon have a host of revolutionary applications that will soon be coming their way.

In a demonstration to CNET, Leap Motion CTO David Holz showed how the Leap is adept at a range of functions, such as:

- Navigating an operating system or browsing Web pages with the flick of a finger
- Finger-pinching to zoom in on maps
- Letting engineers interact with a 3D model of clay
- Precision drawing in either two- or three-dimensions
- Manipulating complex 3D data visualizations
- Playing games, including those that require very "fast-twitch" control
- Signing digital documents by writing in air

But that's just the beginning. Leap Motion, which announced $12.75 million in Series A funding led by Andy Miller of Highland Capital Partners earlier this month, decided from the get-go to make its technology into an ecosystem that would support a large number of third-party applications, as opposed to trying to build and popularize those apps itself.

"We want to create as vibrant a developer ecosystem as possible, and we're reaching out to developers in all sorts of" fields, CEO Michael Buckwald told CNET:

We want there to be world-changing applications that fundamentally transform how people interact with their operating system or browse the Web.... The goal is to fundamentally transform how people interact with computers and to do so in the same way that the mouse did, which means that the transformation affects everyone, both from the most basic use case all the way up to the most advanced use cases you can imagine for computing technology.

App Store
When Microsoft launched the Kinect, the device was a closed system that the software giant intended to keep under tight reins. The company charged for access to a developers kit, and quickly earned the enmity of the hacker community. That led to the now-famous Kinect hacking movement, which eventually forced Microsoft to accept that people wanted to build their own applications on top of the system.

Leap Motion decided from the beginning that turning to developers was the way to go. Now, the company envisions an app store where users who have bought the Leap can go to purchase a very wide range of applications built for the device.

"We believe that ultimately, the sheer number of use cases for this technology are so great that the value can only be realized by making it open," Buckwald said. "So think what would have happened if the mouse had been initially been released as a closed technology. The impact would have been a tiny, tiny percentage of what the impact was because it was an open system that anyone could develop for."

Based on word of mouth and a few low-key announcements about the company, Leap Motion has already gotten more than 1,000 inquiries from developers, and the company expects that number to grow "exponentially" now that word is out about the technology.

The company's plan is to sift through the initial applicants and "start off with a group of diverse developers ranging from people that want to build things for medicine, and consumers and gaming and engineers and science and research and education," Buckwald said.

Starting today, Leap Motion will be looking for a few hundred developers, but will quickly expand the program by sending out between 15,000 and 20,000 free developer kits. Buckwald said the company is immediately starting to take applications for that program, "and we're going to ask developers what kinds of things they envision building and from that, we're going to make decisions about the order on which we bring developers into the program."

It's clear that while Leap Motion considers its technology quite different than that of Kinect, it also hopes that developers who have been frustrated by Microsoft's approach will see the Leap as a much more attractive platform. Says Buckwald:

Those developers are running up against a wall, because the Kinect is a fantastic device for dancing games, but it's hundreds of times less accurate than this technology and not capable of tracking fingers, so it's not a very developer-friendly platform for right now. And we want to provide a way for those developers to use a technology that will let them build applications that are much more complex, much richer, and much easier for consumers, as well as those high-end users to use so that they can do more powerful things.

And while the Leap seems likely to move the field of hands-free 3D motion control forward significantly, Buckwald explained that technology could have existed for years, save for the fact that no one had cracked the math to make it possible. "It's not as if we're using lots of processing power or some new hardware that just came on to the market," he said. "This is really about a fundamental scientific breakthrough, many Eureka moments that (Holz) stumbled through over four or five years of research."

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