Not a Review: Leap Motion Controller Fails in Normal Conditions

I’d long been tempted to try out the Leap Motion controller (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), out of curiosity. Yesterday, Amazon UK had a one-day sale, dropping the price from £70 to £43 (it’s currently selling for £50, so that price drop seems to have been just a small reduction on the new, lower price). I like the idea of being able to control a computer in different ways, and, while I’m not always a fan of gestures, I can see how using it for occasional gestures could be useful. I was particularly thinking about using it to control iTunes – play, pause, change volume – and to use with Dragon Dictate, when I dictate texts, to control the microphone.

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The Leap Motion Controller is an attractive device, with a good idea behind it, but, alas, it fails miserably in normal conditions. You see, it doesn’t like light; it uses two cameras and an infrared sensor to detect motion, and light – particularly infrared light, such as produced by the sun – prevent it from working.

To start with, when you take it out of the box, then set it up, you’re pretty much on your own. After launch, a full-screen window opens with Airspace, where you can download a few apps, and try out Orientation, which seems to be something that shows how the device tracks your movements. All I got was a stuttery video that didn’t detect any movement at all, and just played annoyingly loud music. There’s no help about how to actually use the device.

There’s a video on the Leap website that shows you how to unbox it, connect it, and place it next to a computer, as well as a few videos that show you basics, but nothing more. To actually use it to control your computer, you have to search to find which apps can help. The videos suggest that you can put the device either in front of your keyboard or behind it, but when I placed it behind the keyboard, it hardly ever detected any movements.

So I opened the Leap Motion app and went to Settings. I saw a Troubleshooting tab, with a Recalibrate Device button. I figured that might be useful. I clicked the button, and saw this:

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As much as I searched, I have not been able to find what “Robust Mode” is. I then tried Diagnostic Testing, and found the real problem. As you can see below, there’s too much light interfering with the device.

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Since I don’t work in a basement, I have a window in my office; to the right of my desk. I also have a lamp to light my office, because that window, and the other window in my office, isn’t very large.

I went to the Leap website to see what troubleshooting information I could find. After searching, I discovered this text:

The Leap Motion Controller achieves its best performance in an environment without any external infrared light sources. Because infrared light is invisible to the human eye, the source of the problem may not be immediately obvious.

If this test fails, try lowering window blinds or curtains, if daytime. Turn off or relocate halogen or nearby incandescent lights. (Energy efficient lights such as florescent bulbs should not cause interference.)

Note that the Leap Motion device will still work adequately under most poor lighting conditions. However, the tracking smoothness, range, and accuracy may suffer.

In other words, if you work in a room with lights in the daytime, the device won’t work very well. You’d think the company would put this in the device’s system requirements: Darkness Required. But, no, they’ve wasted my time, and their money, by selling me a device that isn’t fit for purpose.

As Steve Jobs once said:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.

I’m returning the Leap Motion to Amazon. While I like the concept, the implementation is poor. Not only does the company offer little real information about using the device, but it simply won’t work in normal conditions.

And, by the way, this is not how you provide a software uninstaller:

To uninstall the Leap Motion software on Mac OS X, run the uninstall program located in the Leap Motion.app package:

– Navigate to your Applications folder.

– Control-click (or right-click) on the Leap Motion application icon, and choose “Show Package Contents.”

– Navigate to the Contents/MacOS folder in the package.

– Double-click the uninstall program to uninstall the software.

The “uninstaller program” is a shell script that opens Terminal. I can think that most users will be a bit freaked out to see a Terminal window open and ask them for a password. Then again, most users may never uninstall the software.