From sculpting to space exploration: How Leap Motion has us reaching for the stars

7th Jan 2014 | 11:10

From sculpting to space exploration: How Leap Motion has us reaching for the stars

It's about more than OS control

Each time a new motion control-based device shuffles into view, it feels like it's brought a piece of the future with it.

Popularised by the Wii's pick-up-and-play appeal and evolved by competing games consoles, hands-free motion control finally made its way to PCs and laptops in the summer of 2013 courtesy of California-based company Leap Motion.

Formerly known as OcuSpec when it was founded in 2010, Leap Motion has amassed a growing global developer base tasked with creating apps for its gesture-based controller, which can be bought as a plug-and-play USB device or picked up as an embedded peripheral in laptops and keyboards.

We spoke to Leap Motion co-founder and CEO Michael Buckwald on the company's progression so far, how the controller is evolving on a technical level and how it might be handy for business in more ways than one.

TechRadar Pro: The company had a busy three months at the end of 2013. What went down?

Michael Buckwald: In the past three months there have been a lot of important milestones. We expanded our global distribution significantly since our US launch, growing to find ourselves in around 3,000 retail stores globally.

We have partnerships with Maplin and Amazon UK, and MediaMart in Australia and Switzerland. Then there are stores in South Korea and Canada, and we're entering Japan.

There's been lots of great traction - we've got great retail partners partnering with us to build great experiences. We've also seen the number of apps in our app store, called Airspace, grow from 75 at launch to over 150 today. The total number of developers in the ecosystem using our SDK has grown to 80,000, and they're spread out in about 110 countries.

Leap Motion Mac planet

TRP: How have developers taken to Leap Motion, and do you think your Airspace app store will grow quicker than it has in the past year?

MB: The developers are very spread out. There's probably about 20 or 30 countries that represent that majority of developers, but the '110 countries' stat is a cool one as it shows just how global the reach is.

TRP: In which regions is Leap most popular?

TRP: I'd say the US and Europe, which probably makes up 60% of our developer base, but countries like Japan and China are very well represented too.

A map showing which countries have joined in the Leap Motion party

TRP: What can you tell us about Leap Motion's technological progression, in terms of both hardware and API?

MB: One of the things we've done over the past few months is create a new module reference design that takes the module at the top of the peripheral, which is about 10mm, and reduce it to 3.5mm so that it's easy to be embedded in things like laptops and ultra-thin keyboards.

TRP: How about mobile devices – smartphones and tablets?

MB: We've been saying that our goal is to have Leap Motion in everything that's a computer or has a computer, so I think that tablets and phones are a natural next step. Our conversations are ongoing, but that could happen as early as this year - not only integration into tablets and phones but we'd also like to see additional OEM partners on the PC side.

TRP: Will separate apps need to be created for mobile devices, or will there be universal ones that work on PCs too?

MB: I think it depends. Most of the time it's probably going to be a universal app where there may have to be small modifications. For example, you can assume that the user has both hands free on a laptop or desktop, but that may not be a valid assumption as a tablet app developer - you make want to make it so that the user has one hand free while holding the tablet with the other hand.

In general, our philosophy for tablets and PCs is very similar. It's about letting people do things they can't do well today, and that goes back to the company's original vision which was to take the frustration out of creating something 3D on a computer.

We were frustrated with the fact that a five-year-old child can make something with Play-Doh, but it takes a professional modeller an hour to do the same thing. There are lots of examples of that, whether it's things in 3D or creation sculpting, education or exploration. Those experiences just don't happen on computers today, and our mission is to bring them to PC and to bring them to tablets.

Leap Motion Airspace

TRP: Can you see Airspace picking up traction to out more apps in the next 12 months than the previous 12 months?

MB: Hopefully. I think the overall growth of the ecosystem is directly correlated to the number of apps in Airspace, and we've definitely seen a very sharp growth in the number of developers after launch. That curb is increasing exponentially, so that's a positive indicator.

The other thing is the number of customers that are downloading apps. Customers are global, meaning our devs can sell apps to customers buying Leap today who are based in about a dozen major retail markets where there's around 3,000 stores.

There's also the embedded side of our business. Airspace comes bundled with units such as the HP Envy 17 Leap Motion Edition laptop. That encourages developer growth, especially as HP is implementing Leap in 11 SKUs (stock keeping units - versions of products) - those being desktop and all-in-one computers - bringing the total number of SKUs to 12.

Both of those things are really exciting for developers because they can lead to significant growth.

TRP: What has the reception been like to HP's Envy 17?

MB: I think that's been a great start to the embedded program with HP and, broadly speaking, the 17-inch laptop market is important, but it's also been used to test the waters.

TRP: Will see Leap Motion embedded in keyboards?

MB: It's definitely a possibility. HP has embedded the Leap Motion tech into a keyboard that's included with 11 new SKUs, so when you buy a PC it comes with a Leap Motion keyboard. The great thing about that approach is that it's flexible.

Leap Motion keyboard

TRP: Can you see any business potential for Leap Motion?

MB: There's a lot of potential professional or business use cases. Some of those are through actual consumer apps in Airspace.

One of our developers is Autodesk. They have a plugin for Maya, which is a $5,000 to $10,000 suite used by software engineers. Then there's the Cubase iC pro music app, and we're seeing people use Leap in surgery and other environments where you don't want to get your hands dirty.

There are also surgeons on YouTube that have been using consumer computer control apps through Leap, along with metal device companies and people developing interactive heads-up display technology in cars.

Anything that requires interaction with a 3D environment or simply being touch-free will be fully realized with our technology. There are multiple applications of this across 3D design, education, medical, data modeling, automotive and more.

TRP: Do you think its business potential will become clear over time?

MB: It's very early days and we're at the very tip of the iceberg of a long journey, one that touches PCs but will also go to many other places too. We have a role on PCs and tablets as a secondary input device, as a way to view things, but it's not about OS control. It's about doing things like feeling you've just explored the streets of London without being there. Our freeform app, for example, allows anyone to walk up to a computer, sculpt something in 3D and then print it in 3D.

One of the most important things about Freeform is that it's not just the app, but also its menu system, which is definitely the best approach to a menu. It's an example of how early on things are - even things like menus are created differently by developers and there's innovation happening.

It's incredible to think of how much potential there is and how disruptive things developers create will be - we see the bar get raised every day from an app perspective. We're also doing things constantly with the software. Even though Leap is a physical device that people buy in a store, it's as much a software product as it is a hardware one. We push free software updates that significantly change the performance of the device.

Leap Motion laptop

TRP: Do they change how the device tracks hand movements?

MB: There's a major enhancement to the core tracking we've that been working on it for a year and a half. It makes it so that people can rotate their hands 360 degrees, and the tracking is constant, so the user no longer has to familiarise how far they can turn their hands, so there's a sense of robustness from that.

All of that dramatically decreases the amount of time it takes for developers to build apps. That's our vision for the company - we don't think of Leap as a gesture control device - we think of it as motion control. We want there to be incredible control of people's hands and fingers - to allow people to pick up things to create direct physical experiences.

TRP: What's Leap Motion driven by - the hardware or the software?

MB: The unique Leap Motion experience is provided through software. The hardware uses simple component parts.

Michael Buckwald

TRP: Might we see Leap being bundled with 3D printers in the future?

MB: Absolutely. The thing we're most passionate about is democratising content creation - whether that's music, drawing or 3D sculpting. Those are areas where there's most momentum. Then there's 3D printing, communication and education, and also the music community. If you search YouTube and search for Leap Motion there's videos of five-year-old kids using Leap to be amateur DJs.

We're very passionate about taking something we think everyone wants, which is to be creative, and bringing that back to computers.

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