You don’t have to be a Minority Report fan to appreciate Leap Motion’s new tracking sensor technology: there’s something tremendously appealing about being able to wave your hands at your computer and conduct the digital world. Motion control has already proved itself more than just a gimmick in gaming, and now it has a chance to not only do that in mainstream computing, but perhaps rescue Microsoft from one of its more contentious Windows decisions. Play it right, and Leap Motion – and others with it – could kill touch in traditional computing before its even had a chance to get started.
The ergonomics and usability of touchscreen notebooks is something that’s been well worked-over. Apple’s Steve Jobs was certainly no fan, describing the idea of a traditional form-factor computer with a touch-sensitive display as poorly thought-through and near unusable. Meanwhile, Intel and Microsoft are pushing OEMs to deliver touchscreen ultrabooks running Windows 8, betting on there being a segment of users willing to pay for tablet-style touch with the added input flexibility of a regular keyboard.
Whether that’s true or not is the lingering question. Touchscreen notebooks have been decidedly niche until now, though part of the blame must lie with Windows 7 and its general finger-unfriendliness. Convertible tablets, with touchscreens that rotate around on themselves and fold into a chunky slate have seen some success in vertical markets, but struggled to broach consumer awareness.
Motion tracking for computers, though, has already weaseled its way into that awareness, using the Trojan horse of gaming. Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360 built upon users’ willingness to fling themselves bodily around their living room while controlling the Wii, getting them familiar with the concept of hands themselves – rather than the remotes they’re gripping – being the controller. Microsoft was never coy about its plans to transition Kinect technology to the PC – the company talked about it, albeit in broad and vague terms, back at the sensor bar’s launch – but it will take Windows 8 to deliver on that.
What will likely prove the deciding factor, though, is the degree of refinement of any form of motion tracking. If you’re swinging a sword around a virtual world, then your Kinect probably doesn’t need to be too accurate to satisfy. If, though, you’re trying to navigate a text-dense document or manipulate a complex graphics project, there can be no scrimping on precision. One of the key differences between a cheap tablet and an iPad or one of the more polished Android models is the responsiveness and accuracy of the touchscreen: if the manufacturer gets that wrong, and the finger-feel is off, owners will just give up on using it.
That may well end up being Microsoft’s struggle. Leap Motion’s Leap is, according to the company, several hundred times more accurate at tracking objects than Kinect or other sensors. Where Microsoft can resolve limbs, Leap is following individual fingers. It’d be overkill for gaming, most likely, but could do what touchscreens and other technologies have failed to achieve in desktops and laptops to-date: convincing the everyman that they’re fundamentally better than the good old keyboard and mouse.
Microsoft needs to convince the legion of traditional PC users that the decision to ditch Aero in favor of Metro makes sense not only for tableteers but for those who spend their time at desktops and notebooks. Right now, it feels like Windows 8 has prioritized the fledgling tablet market above the established PC market, with an interface that makes more sense for touch than it does a mouse. If Leap Motion is clever, it can embed itself as the third control method, more user-friendly than keyboard/mouse and involving less unergonomic reaching than a touchscreen display. It needs to do it fast, though, before Microsoft raises its game.