Leap Motion Controller, Great Hardware in Search of Great Software

By now, we all know what the future will be like; movies and TV shows have described it in detail. We know about the flying cars (thank you, “Blade Runner”), holograms (thank you, “Star Trek”) and robot butlers (thank you, “Jetsons”).

The Leap Motion Controller is a solution in search of a problem: its hardware is simple, but it needs a killer app.

So when will we really get those technologies? Probably on the 11th of “Don’t hold your breath.”

There is, however, one exception. As of this week, you can buy your own little piece of “Minority Report” and “Iron Man”: controlling your computer by making hand motions in the air.

The Internet has been buzzing about the much-delayed Leap Motion Controller ($80) since its first public demonstrations over a year ago. Imagine controlling on-screen objects just by reaching into empty space, just like Tom Cruise! Imagine gesture recognition just like Microsoft’s Kinect game controller, but on a much smaller, more precise scale! Imagine the future, plugged into a USB jack on the Mac or Windows PC you own today!

The Leap Motion sensor is beautiful, tiny and self-contained. If Wrigley’s ever comes out with a Juicy Fruit Designer Pack, it might look like this: a sleek, glass-and-aluminum slab (1.2 by 3 by 0.5 inches), with nonskid rubber on the bottom. A single USB cable (both a long one and a short one come in the box) stretches away to your computer; a light comes on when it’s working.

(Please note that Leap Motion has nothing to do with Leap Pad, the children’s toy. That gadget is educational in a completely different way.)

If you have a desktop computer, you put the sensor between your screen and keyboard. If it’s a laptop, you park it on the desk just in front of the keyboard. Soon, Leap says, you’ll be able to buy a PC from H.P. or Asus that has the sensor built right in.You download the Leap software, and presto: a somewhat buggy tutorial instructs you to insert your hands into the space — an invisible two-foot cube — that’s monitored by the Leap’s cameras and infrared sensors.

This device is like the Kinect in that it recognizes body parts in space. But not only is the Leap far smaller and less expensive, it’s also far more precise. According to the company, it can detect the precise positions of all 10 of your fingers simultaneously, with a spatial accuracy to a 100th of a millimeter — 200 times as accurate as the Kinect.

And remember, the Leap adds gesture recognition not to your TV, but to your computer. A machine that can run millions of different programs for all different purposes. Games, sure, but also office work. Creative work. Communication. Entertainment. Surely this little wonder is a very big deal.

Unfortunately, it’s not. The Leap’s hardware may be simple, attractive and coherent — but its software is scattershot, inconsistent and frustrating.

The first crushing disappointment is that no software recognizes your hand motions unless it’s been specially written, or adapted, for use by the Leap.

There are 75 such apps already on the Leap’s app store, Airspace; some are free, some cost a few dollars. Not all work on both Mac and Windows.

Most are games. In the best of them, you control the action in 3-D space, just as with the Kinect but without having to stand up. For example, Boom Ball ($5) is the classic Breakout game, where you try to knock out bricks by bouncing a ball against them — but your paddle is attached to your finger in vertical space.

In Disney’s clever Sugar Rush ($2), a spin off from the “Wreck-It Ralph” movie, you bake yourself a racing car shaped like a wedge of cake, and then steer it by holding both sides of an invisible steering wheel. When you play Dropchord ($3), you hold two index fingers out in space; you’re defining a line between them that you use to slice dots and avoid X’s. Cut the Rope is here, too (free).

There are some interesting music-making programs, which makes sense, since hand motions are generally associated with playing instruments. Air Harp ($1) is just what it sounds like. Chordion Conductor is a sweet-sounding arpeggiator (generates music from chords you select).

A few simple educational apps are available, like Molecules (rotate molecules on the screen; free), Cyber Science 3D (pull apart a skull; free) and Frog Dissection (you guessed it; $4).