Leap Motion brings 3D motion control to the desktop, with mixed results

LeapMotion

At first, Leap Motion’s device feels like magic. An invisible cone of light tracks your fingers in front of your monitor and turns every gesture into onscreen action across Leap’s selection of independent games and apps – and, like every motion controller, it feels unique and exciting right up to the moment you break the spell with your own curiosity.

It’s players’ own faults, really. You watch your family enjoying Wii Sports with exaggerated serving motions, dipping a knee to bowl and swinging for the bleachers, and you ask yourself: “Just how little do I need to swing the controller to get the same effect?” The answer is, of course, not much – the Wii Remote’s sensitivity was never a match for the games it was sold upon, and a simple flick of the wrist was ample to launch a Wii Sports baseball out of the stadium. Kinect, too, was magic right up until the moment you found that placing one arm behind your back sent your character flailing, or that turning sideways gave you a double-jointed knee.

Leap Motion’s $80 controller, with which the company shares its name, is a tiny device that fills the space in front of your monitor with infrared light and tracks every motion within its area of effect. It looks innocuous on a desk and is easily set up, with the drivers and Airspace application downloaded from Leap’s site. It ships in a neat little square box, has two USB cables – one long, one short, to accommodate different setups – and salutes Apple’s design aesthetic with its brushed aluminium and glossy black shell.

A tutorial and selection of demos are Leap Motion’s first magic trick. As you swipe your fingers through the air you’ll trace glowing lines on the screen, drawing shapes and pictures with a finger. Another demo tracks the orientation of your hands with an onscreen skeleton, each wireframe finger mirroring your own instantly as you move it. But when curiosity gets the better of you and you turn your hand sideways, you lose three of your skeletal fingers. Leap Motion’s two-dimensional view of the world limits the readability of your gestures and means a sideways hand is as good as a one-fingered hand. Test the depth of the cone and you’ll find that you’re often dipping your hands in and out of the light without realising; there’s a learning process with Leap Motion’s device, and the software does little to assist your understanding of the gestural language you’re forced to learn.

The controller can be configured to operate your mouse pointer, which is almost marginally desirable for Windows 8’s touch-friendly interface, but Leap Motion’s cone of light is not a touchscreen with a binary on/off understanding of your intentions. You’ll ‘press’ invisible buttons by reaching into space and jabbing at air, scroll pages with a swipe of two fingers – and switch back to the immediacy and accuracy of a mouse within minutes.

It’s as a game controller that Leap Motion is at its most worthwhile, but even games built for the hardware very quickly reveal problems that are beyond the device’s ability to solve. Double Fine’s Dropchord is the showcase game – the Halo of Leap Motion, in a sense – but it’s telling just how much easier the game is on iOS. With fingers planted firmly on the screen and the game’s two ‘handles’ responding to every motion, it’s an unusual and solid rhythm-action game, but with arms outstretched you lose precision and control, particularly during sequences where you’re required to ‘press’ buttons with one, two or three fingers.

And Dropchord’s lengthy sessions expose another quirk: sitting with arms outstretched is uncomfortable, even for physically fit players. A half-hour spent with hands hovering at chest height is a half-hour your shoulders will quickly notice, and there’s a reason why doctors recommend that office workers sit straight, plant their feet and support their wrists on a table. Arms are heavy, and Leap Motion only underlines that.

In a way it’s proof that a Minority Report future is undesirable; operating a computer with outstretched arms is unnatural and uncomfortable, and an alternative already exists that has worked better and more intuitively since the early ’80s. Leap’s brand of motion control offers little that a mouse or a touchscreen doesn’t, and for now there are few apps to justify the three-dimensional depth the sensor allows. The question Leap Motion raises is whether desktop motion control was desirable in the first place.

LeapMotion games – our verdict

Dropchord

Publisher: Double Fine Price: Free
Free for now, the standout game on the Airspace Store is the clearest demonstration of Leap Motion’s strengths and weaknesses. Dropchord has you dragging a line across icons, triggering musical notes and sweeping a path around obstacles while lactic acid burns your frozen, aching shoulders. Despite such issues, it’s the best example of Leap’s precision.

Fruit Ninja

Publisher: Halfbrick  Price: $3.59
Fruit Ninja seems immediately suited to Leap’s motion controls but the visible onscreen cursor rather gives the game away. Its fruit-slicing mechanic makes the game an obvious choice for a motion-controlled port, but it’s also perfectly playable without a Leap Motion sensor. The 360 version does a better job of hiding the artifice behind the gesture-based controls.

Sugar Rush

Publisher: Disney Price: $2.39
It looked like Disney had skipped the opportunity to release its own kart racer based on the Sugar Rush game from Wreck-It Ralph, but here it is, late enough and horrible enough for absolutely nobody to care. It’s a slow, clumsy effort with stodgy physics and the invisible steering wheel controls that didn’t work for Kinect Joy Ride – and still don’t work here.

Kyoto

Publisher: Funktronic Labs Price: Free
A ten-minute audioreactive puzzle game that would be Leap Motion’s best tech demo if only the gestures it requires were accurately recognised. Kyoto sees you farming stars, strumming Northern Lights, and exploring a simple space with your hands – and does a better job of encouraging players to experiment than anything from Leap’s own training apps.

PopPop!

Publisher: Pixel Potato Price: $3.59
The Airspace Store’s lineup is reminiscent of the early days of the iOS store, with tech demos extended to full games and countless developers thrilled by control gimmicks. PopPop! is a simple shooting gallery game with pinch-to-shoot controls that, if nothing else, demonstrate a better way to emulate pointing and clicking with a mouse than Leap Motion’s own solution.

Serious Slice

Publisher: Curious Bit Price: $3.59
A bizarre port of iOS title Perfect Slice, with objects torn from the Serious Sam universe. Each item must be bisected as close to 50/50 as you can – easy when it’s a simple pyramid, harder when it’s a butt-heavy assault rifle, and utterly inexplicable in either case. It’s perfectly playable without motion controls, and is one of the best games on the Airspace Store.