The Gorilla Arm Problem.

The interfaces of the future are almost always depicted as something that’s devoid of any interface peripheral leaving nothing between the humans and the screens they’re interacting with. Of these the most iconic is the one from Minority Report where we see Tom Cruise wave his hands around in order to manipulate data with the motions being so intuitive many people left the theater wondering how long it would take to get that technology in their homes. It didn’t take long for it to be developed but despite people’s excitement regarding the potential future of interface technology you’d be hard pressed to find it anywhere, let alone in anyone’s house.

There’s a company out there that’s trying to change that called Leap Motion and their new product has a distinctly Minority Report feel to it:

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Now the Leap Motion controller isn’t anything revolutionary from a technological point of view. It’s fundamentally the same as a Kinect (which itself is based off PrimeSense technology) however rather than doing whole body detection over a wide area the Leap Motion controller has instead been designed to recognize finer grained motion in a much smaller area. So instead of being aimed at the gaming market Leap Motion is positioning itself as an alternative interface to the traditional desktop PC, one that has the potential to replace many of the capabilities of the current standard interface peripherals (and even some of the non-standard ones). However there are some fundamental issues with it that will likely impede its adoption and they’re not exactly  unique  to the Leap Motion idea.

The Gorilla Arm effect is a well known phenomena in ergonomics whereby any interface system that requires someone to hold their arm out and make fine motions ends up with the user’s arm feeling tired and sore in no short order. It was first encountered when touchscreens were first developed which, at the time, was thought to be the next big revolution in interface design. Now whilst touchscreens are a big part of the world today they’re used much more like traditional peripherals (I.E. they don’t require you to hold your arms up) and not in the same way in which the Leap Motion demonstrates much of its functionality.

Now the argument can be made that the Leap Motion controller can provide a lot of additional functionality without invoking the Gorilla Arm effect as there has been musings that it could replace your keyboard and, by logical extension, your mouse as well. The trouble with that is however is that such interfaces lack any kind of tactile feedback something which plagued the similarly cool but useless idea of the laser keyboards. Indeed as I mentioned in my review of the Surface and its atrocious touch keyboard the lack of feedback makes using them quite a chore and unfortunately I can’t see how Leap Motion would be able to get around that particular issue.

Where it might become useful is in gestures that could be tied up with shortcuts in your application of choice. Personally I wouldn’t find much use for it as my muscle memory for all the required shortcuts is already etched into my nervous system but it would essentially be an alternative to something like a multi-touch trackpad. Whether or not one is better than the other is an exercise that I’ll leave up to the reader but suffice to say whilst the Leap Motion controller looks cool it’s applicability in the real world seems rather limited.

It could make a rather awesome little augment for robotics projects, however.

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