Jason BlockDesigner and Front-End Engineer

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by Jason BlockMarch 22, 2013

Leaping with Motion

I didn't love SXSW. I can't really put my finger on "why" without sounding pious. I had fun (and likely ate several cows worth of beef), but my brain has had better vacations.

But one of the great interactions I had was with a tiny piece of technology called the Leap. More specifically, it was listening to the engineers behind it speak more frankly than most people would if they were launching a MAJOR piece of consumer electronics into the wild.

See, they didn't go up there pronouncing their device as "the future." Nor did they hint that they had anything truly solved beyond the math required to detect hands in 3-space with incredible precision and speed (Seriously. This thing is black magic.). Their presentation was entitled "the disappearing user interface," and it's completely accurate.

We've historically waited for hardware to beckon the next generation of software. The iPhone truly propelled mobile development and touchscreen interaction, and we really could have made similar software before that, but we didn't have that interaction paradigm.

But what the iPhone has that the Leap doesn't have is a screen; a screen that provides feedback. The Leap gives you open space and gestural freedom. It's both liberating and incredibly daunting.

You rarely interact with technology in a way that truly forces you to stretch your senses. The biggest barrier to any sort of great interfaces with this brilliant technology is the affordance to use it well. It's evidenced by the price of the hardware itself. It's the math that's complex, not the device. Developers are faced with the challenge of stretching our senses to afford the feedback that the Leap doesn't provide on its own.

You can create a horrifyingly ugly application on the iPhone, but they build in button primitives that respond to touches like real-life buttons. You didn't need to stretch our human capacity for physical interaction in order to use it. In that regard, the Leap is a failure. It's like having a Porsche with no gas. No fuel for the fire.


They released it at a perfect time. We're at the inflection point of application usefullness and minimal barriers to software development. It's easier than ever to hack together code to move a cube in 3D space; something that required arcane knowledge of low level graphics primitives not too long ago.

Most of all, we have developers focused on interaction rather than technology. And in an ultimate act of humility, Leap Motion handed the reins of dictating that human interface to the developers of the world.

The Leap is almost philosophical. Developing for it is more of a "why" than a "how." Yes, you can plug it in as a touchscreen replacement (and if I remember correctly that was their original concept). But truly, and honestly, how would you interact with a device in an unbounded environment?

It's incredibly captivating, and to say that I'm excited about playing around with it is an understatement. I've got a developer kit. I can't wait to develop something for it, but I also can't wait to just explore.