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Why in-air gestures failed, and why they'll soon win

Mike Elgan | Sept. 2, 2014
In-the-air gesture technology was a solution in search of a problem. It recently found one. And soon it will find another.

in the air gesture technology
With Leap Motion's technology, a user can control a  PC with gestures.Credit: Leap Motion

Four years ago, in-the-air gestures were the future of gaming and the desktop PC user interface.

In 2010, Microsoft launched its Kinect product for Xbox 360 and Leap Motion was founded as a company.

For a while, Kinect for Xbox 360 was the fastest selling consumer electronics gadget of all time. And when Leap Motion introduced the Leap Motion controller, minds were blown by the demos.

The excitement around Kinect has fizzled, among both gamers and game developers. Microsoft recently boosted sales of the Xbox One by removing the requirement to also get Kinect. People aren't using it like they thought. Hardly anyone is using the hyped Kinect for Windows product.

And Leap Motion has completely failed in the market.

What happened?

Why in-the-air gestures failed

It's easy to be so dazzled by new technology that you forget the other half of the equation: the human user. This is especially true of user interfaces, which are by definition the point at which the human and the machine connect.

The trouble with in-the-air gesture technology is that it has thus far been applied to the wrong problem. Both Kinect and Leap Motion have been used to control on-screen action of some kind.

Waving your hands and arms around to control something "over there" is not an activity that corresponds to anything that was ever a part of the human experience — unlike, say, the direct manipulation of on-screen objects with multitouch technology. It's a completely new and abstract behavior that Microsoft and Leap Motion are demanding of people. And we're not having any of it.

Why in-the-air gestures will succeed

Even great in-the-air gesture technology failed when applied to a problem that was counter to human nature. The technology will succeed when it is used for human-compatible applications. And there are two big ones in our immediate future.

1. Virtual and augmented reality

Leap Motion this week rolled out a $20 plastic clip that mounts the Leap Motion controller to an Oculus Rift headset. The Oculus Rift is a highly regarded prototype virtual reality system developed by Oculus VR, a company that was acquired by Facebook in March for $2 billion.

Leap Motion also released a demo video that I think you should see. It shows what's displayed in Oculus Rift, with two screens that (when you're wearing the Oculus Rift goggles) provide the illusion of 3D. It shows how Leap Motion's extreme accuracy in the real-time location of arms, hands and fingers translates into the ability to have total control in augmented reality and virtual reality programs.


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