It can sometimes feel cheap to talk about the potential of a new tech product. Dreaming of what could be, we tend to hope for the best, even when the current product has little chance of reaching those heights.
But in the case of Leap Motion, I really do see the potential. As my colleague Harry McCracken wrote, the $80 product is in need of refinement, but the technology, which tracks finger motions in three dimensions, is impressive. There isn’t really anything else like it on the market, which means Leap is in a great position to define how 3D motion control should work on personal computers.
To hear more about Leap’s thinking, I spoke with CEO and Co-Founder Michael Buckwald last week. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t pitch Leap as a replacement for the mouse and keyboard–there is a mouse simulation available in Leap’s Airspace store, but it’s kind of wonky–at least not immediately.
“Leap is never going to be invested in filling out an Excel document with tiny little grids, and that’s okay,” Buckwald said. “Ten years from now, when operating systems and core software have been fundamentally rethought around technology like this, could this be the only input mechanism? Absolutely.”
Leap is trying to get a head start by launching its own app store, called Airspace, where users can download supported apps. Buckwald said there are about 75 apps available now, with two-thirds available on both Mac and Windows. “We’re actually pretty happy with that number, even though there are lots of great apps that are in the pipeline,” he said. He’s hoping that Airspace will be home to lots of specialized productivity apps, such as CAD software for designers, so there’s not as much pressure to have huge quantities of apps.
Still, playing with the current selection, you can’t escape the fact that quality can vary greatly from one app to another, and that apps don’t all seem to agree on what motion control methods work best. For instance, some apps simulate a mouse slick when your finger moves in front of Leap, while others require a more distinct pointing gesture. (As Harry said to me, “It’s as if a mouse worked differently in every program.”)
Buckwald seems content to let Leap’s app developers try as many things as possible, arguing that the diversity of approaches is one of the strengths of the platform. But I do think Leap will eventually have to rein developers in and enforce more consistency. The tricky thing for Leap is that, as a new platform, it’s a balancing act between cracking down on quality and making developers feel welcome. “We’re selective, but we also feel like the platform is nascent and we want to get a variety of different approaches and put apps into the market and see which ones people prefer,” Buckwald said.
Fortunately, Leap does provide a gesture engine for developers, and over the last several months has added new tools to help developers build motion control into their apps. Hopefully that’ll result in more consistency and more Leap-enabled software, as new apps take advantage of the tools Leap is offering.
So what’s next for Leap? The company still has deals in place with Asus and HP, which both plan to bundle the Leap peripheral with certain PCs; HP will be the first to embed the technology directly in future products. Leap also wants to experiment with how its product is presented at Best Buy stores, adding interactive demo units in some locations and seeing how it goes.
After that, Buckwald said the company will start looking into Android support. Leap will spend two or three months getting its software and developer platform working on ARM-based processors–the same kind found in most phones and tablets.
“The limitation isn’t hardware,” Buckwald said. “The module that we use today can fit in mobile devices, so it’s mainly a question of us deciding to move in that direction and then working to get all of our developers to build their apps in a way that will make them run on Android.”
Though Buckwald didn’t categorically rule out iOS, Leap is isn’t really interested in selling a peripheral for phones and tablets. The company would much rather partner with phone and tablet makers to embed the technology directly, like it’s doing with HP on the PC side. “Obviously on the partnership side, there are many companies that make Android handsets, but only one that makes iOS handsets,” Buckwald said.
But that raises another question: Would Leap consider acquisition by a larger tech company? After all, there have been murmurs of Apple looking to buy its own motion control company, such as PrimeSense.
Not surprisingly, Buckwald answered carefully, pointing out the many business opportunities the company already has, such as working with NASA and robotics companies, and getting embedded in more consumer devices. “I think at this point we’re very focused on building a great business,” he said. As early reviews have shown, Leap’s work isn’t nearly finished.