Hands-on with Leap Motion's hands-off 3D 'mouse'

The company is courting developers to showcase the potential of its spatial motion-tracking controller

If I say "controlling items on your screen simply by using hand gestures," your first thought is likely the movie "Minority Report," right? Well, Leap Motion's new UI device and software will do that soon if you'd like. But the company is thinking even bigger.

Leap Motion's vision is not merely to replace the mouse or the touchscreen, but to tear down the idea that you have to interact with your computing devices via some other piece of hardware. You don't grab a mouse or poke a screen. You just move your hands in 3D space, as this promo video shows:

Leap Motion has no real interest in selling anything beyond the device itself, which is a small piece of hardware (about half the width and double the thickness of an iPod) that connects to your PC or Mac via USB. (The company is pursuing a wireless version for future release.) A bit of software runs in the background, and that's it.

The rest is up to developers. Leap wants them to show the potential -- and push the limits -- of the interface. "We're a platform, not just a piece of technology," says Michael Zagorsek, Leap's vice president of product marketing. "Developers will realize the full potential of this via apps."

When Leap Motion was introduced last fall, the product website posed a still-standing question to developers: "What would you do with this?" Developers who respond with an interesting pitch get a Leap Motion test unit. The baseline language for the Leap API is C++, but the company is constantly revising its SDK based on dev feedback. It has already been able to provide wrappers for Unity, Objective-C, and Javascript, leading to a range of games (Unity), ports of iOS apps (Objective-C), and websites (JavaScript) leveraging Leap, and the company is looking to add a wrapper for Android as well. [Ed. note: An earlier version of this story said that Leap had not yet added wrappers for Unity, Objective-C, and JavaScript; this paragraph has been updated with the correct info.]

As for the interface itself, it worked quite well in the prototype I got a chance to use. You can point with your finger or any sort of wand (a pencil, a drumstick, or -- heck -- an actual magician's wand if you want to be funny about it) and get a single cursor on the screen. You can wave your whole hand over the interface and get five cursors, or you can use both hands for 10 cursors. There is no lag to speak of, which makes for seamless, reliable control.

To be frank, it's fun. Leap frequently demos games that serve to help new users get acclimated to the control system: fruit-slicing games that ask you to slash your finger across the screen, a round of virtual Jenga that hinges on the precision of your thumb-and-forefinger pinch as well as the angle of your hand, and even virtual modeling clay, which points to the obvious CAD ramifications for the controller.

But even in fairly staid apps, the cool factor is undeniable, as is the tendency to start dreaming about what else could be done with 10 cursors (we have not yet begun to multitask!).

Which, again, brings it back to developers. Leap is counting on them to make the business and consumer cases for the controller. "We want to see as many different kinds of apps, rather than redundant apps," says Zagorsek, and that could be anything from data manipulation à la "Minority Report" to a task as simple as a page turn when your hands are dirty and you don't want to touch your screen, keyboard, or mouse.

Leap Motion has signed a deal with Asus to bundle the controller with high-end notebooks later this year, and its road map calls for integrating the controller into more laptops as well as into mobile devices such as tablets and possibly smartphones.

The Leap Motion controller is availabile for pre-order now and is due for retail release later this year. The company is still recruiting developers on its website as well.

This story, "Hands-on with Leap Motion's hands-off 3D 'mouse'," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.