Goodbye, Mouse; Hello Touch, Talk and Gesture

Leap Motion's coming 3-D hand-motion-controller signals a huge advance in the shift away from the keyboard and mouse.

Fitting, perhaps, that Eugene Polley died this week. Polley might be called the father of the electronic input device, having invented the "Flash-Matic" wireless TV remote control at Zenith in 1955. Polley's device, more than a convenience, changed how we interact with television.

A new electronic input device was announced this week that, more than a convenience, potentially could change how we interact with computers, televisions and other devices.

The 3-D hand-motion-controlling device by Leap Motion, a San Francisco startup, makes Microsoft's Kinect controller look like a Model T. Granted, it does not deal with voice commands like the Kinect, but it can track movements of one-hundredth of a millimeter – 200 times more sensitive than Kinect.

That means virtually any gesture can be interpreted within the 4 cubic feet of airspace it tracks: Handwriting, drawing, pinch-to-zoom, rotating an item in 3-D. It can detect each of your fingers, and whether you are holding something like a pen or pencil or chopsticks, and use that information to interpret your gestures.

Several games are demonstrated in a video by Leap Motion. Put your hands together like a bird's wings and soar through the air, twisting and turning with your hands. Point your finger like a gun and shoot in a first-person shooting game. Use finger chops to slice through fruit in Fruit Ninja.

The controller, which plugs into a computer's USB port, is about the size of a slender pack of chewing gum and uses infrared sensors like Kinect. It's expected to hit the market the beginning of next year and will retail for $69.99.

"In addition to the Leap for computers, our core software is versatile enough to be embedded in a wide range of devices, including smartphones, tablets, cars and refrigerators," said Leap Motion CEO and co-founder Michael Buckwald in a statement. "One day 3-D motion control will be in just about every device we interact with, and thanks to the Leap, that day is coming sooner than anyone expected."

While Leap's device promises a significant advance, it's really part of an entire shift in how we interact with computers, TVs and other electronic devices -- away from keyboards and mice to touchscreens, voice commands and hand gestures.

The shift began with the spread of smartphones and tablets, making touchscreens an everyday replacement for the mouse on those devices, and even changing how mouse trackpads work on computers: Before, we expected a trackpad just to work with one finger; now they handle multiple-finger gestures like pinch-to-zoom or a swipe.

Later this year those touchscreens increasingly will show up on laptops and computer displays themselves, with the launch of Windows 8 and its touchscreen-centric Metro interface.

Next there was Siri, the friendly, sometimes humorous voice-command interface introduced with Apple's iPhone 4S last fall. Siri's integration with the iPhone's operating system made it possible to do all kinds of useful things with voice commands: Send a text message or e-mail, check the weather, set appointments or look things up.

Not long after Siri was introduced Microsoft revamped its Xbox Live interface to work with Kinect, making it possible to watch Internet television, find and watch videos or play music by voice command. Many observers expect that when and if Apple introduces a smart TV into the market that it will work largely with voice commands as well.

Voice commands have found their way into our cars as well. Expect the same embedded technology to show up elsewhere. "Microwave, cook 5 minutes" or "Oven, heat to 350" would seem like naturals for a cook who doesn't want to push buttons with messy hands.

And now 3-D motion control. Many of the uses for it have not yet been conceived or developed. In the history of computing, hardware comes first, then uses are developed for it. In fact part of Leap Motion's announcement this week was aimed at enlisting software developers to develop applications.

It's the touch, talk and gesture era of electronics. The same way we interact with each other.


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