When I first read about the LEAP Motion controller I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. The technology seemed too advanced and the price seemed far too cheap for something with such amazing abilities.
I’m going to go into more detail about what the LEAP Motion controller actually does, but the gist of it is that this little box can scan and capture the motion of objects you put close enough to it in real time. This means you can digitize objects like your hands without having to wear any devices or bulky attachments.
What is the Leap Motion?
Physically, the Leap Motion is a small box with a USB port at one end. It doesn’t look much different from a mobile USB modem. Originally, the Leap Motion was meant to sit on your desk, usually in front of the monitor. This effectively turned just about any screen into a motion tracking display where you can move stuff around and generally interact just by moving your hands around.
Under the plastic shell of the Leap Motion there are two infrared cameras. These can’t see in color, but they are very fast sensors with a high monochrome resolution. Since these cameras see in the infrared spectrum of light, they need a good clear source of it to work properly. So you’ll also find three infrared LEDs that provide good light to allow the cameras to see.
The Leap Motion hardware itself isn’t particularly special. The IR cameras will each generate about 200 images per second, which is then sent to the computer for analysis. This is where the secret sauce of Leap Motion lives. Their special mathematics can take the image data from those two cameras in real-time and convert it into incredibly accurate 3D model data. So it’s not so much that the Leap Motion hardware is special, it’s how the makers of the tracker have figured out the mathematics needed to track movement to a very precise degree.
Just how accurately can the Leap Motion track stuff? Independent testing has pegged it to about 0.7 millimeters. That’s tracking accuracy on the sub-millimeter scale, which allows for all sorts of applications that would have traditionally worked with a mouse. For example, if you have a 3D CAD model on your computer screen, you can reach out and “grab” it with the Leap Motion. You can then rotate or transform the object with your own hands making use of that finely-grained tracking accuracy.
You may think that the Leap Motion sounds similar to the Microsoft Kinect, but the main difference, apart from the accuracy, is that the Kinect was built for whole-body tracking. The Leap motion, on the other hand, only has a small tracking volume that encompasses a 2×2 foot space from the sensor. This makes it perfect for tracking hands, but not a body.
The Kinect and Leap Motion are actually complementary for VR purposes, since one can be used to track hands with high levels of detail while the other can map gross body motion. This data can then be combined for a more complete tracking experience.
Leaping into VR
I don’t think Leap Motion had VR in mind right from the start. It certainly never really featured in the early promotional material. But VR has been a godsend for the company, which has struggled to find a mainstream killer application for their tracker. The Leap Motion only costs about $70 but, even so, users are not going to buy it if they have no idea how they’ll be using it.
The answer to integrating the Leap Motion with VR systems turns out to be sticking it on the front of an HMD. In the beginning this was literally achieved with some Velcro stuck on the front visor. Now we have HMDs like the OSVR which has a dedicated holder for the Leap right on the front. Using this, it’s possible to digitize your hands almost perfectly without wearing anything. Sure, there’s no feedback, but it’s a cheap and easy way to add fine hand control to a VR sim. If all else fails, you can at least control Windows like you’re Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
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