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The Leap Motion Controller and Mac: Part 1

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The Leap Motion Controller is a peripheral input device that lets you interact with your Mac in a new way. With it you can control supported apps by waving your hands in the air–like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. The Leap Motion Controller detects the movement of your hands and fingers and uses these to control the Mac. You can use your hand gestures to sculpt 3D objects, play games, make music and do a whole lot more.

In this tutorial I'll explain how the Leap Motion Controller works, show you how to set it up, find and install compatible apps and give you a few tips for using it. 

This is the first of a series of tutorials that will show you how to use the Leap Motion Controller and so will focus on the basics. Later tutorials will dive deep into the cool things you can do with the Leap Motion Controller.

How the Leap Motion Controller Works

The Leap Motion Controller works by sending a cone shaped infrared signal. Your hands (and fingers) reflect the infrared light back to the device. The Mac, to which it is connected, uses this information to work out where in space your hands are and what they are doing. With this it can interpret what you are trying to do, depending on the app you are using.

The Leap Motion Controller’s interaction zone extends out around 60 centimetres, or two feet, in every direction. It's a cone, so the higher above the device you wave your hands, the wider the area your gestures will be detected in is. If you gesture too low they will fall below the cone.

The device is tiny–just a little larger than a pack of chewing gum. It connects to the Mac, and is powered, by USB.

As the Leap Motion Controller sends out an infrared signal, it works best if it is kept out of really bright light sources, or other sources of infrared. The Leap Motion software will attempt to overcome such interference but it does make its detection slightly less accurate.

You can buy a Leap Motion Controller for $79.99.

In the Box

Your Leap Motion Controller will arrive in a box worthy of an Apple product. In the box is the device, an Important Information guide and two USB leads. The two USB leads are of different lengths: one is 60 centimtres (24-inches) long and the other 1.5 metres (60-inches).

The Leap Motion Controller in its packaging.

Positioning the Leap Motion Controller

The Leap Motion Controller’s interaction zone is quite large. You can position the device relatively freely and still be able to gesture above it easily. 

I like to place it between my keyboard and my monitor. This means that the interaction zone extends out above my keyboard and I can easily lift my hand and gesture. If you are using a MacBook you can also place it in front of the keyboard.

Using the Leap Motion Controller

When using the Leap Motion Controller, I find that my hands are detected best when they are at least 20 centimetres, or eight inches, above the device and within 45 centimetres, or 18 inches, in every other direction. 

If you are using an app that calls for gestures with two or three fingers, the wider you spread your hands the better; if you do not spread them enough, the Leap Motion Controller will only detect one finger.

Using the Leap Motion Controller takes a bit of getting use to. It is a new way to interact with your Mac.Initially, you might struggle to use it, however, with practice it has become second nature to me.

Setting Up the Leap Motion Controller

Setting up the Leap Motion Controller is simple. Connect the device to the Mac using one of the USB cables. Visit the Leap Motion set up page and download the latest Leap Motion software.

Once the software has downloaded, navigate to the Downloads folder, open the Leap Motion Installer DMG and install the PKG file. The installer will take you through the process.

The Leap Motion Software

The Leap Motion Controller comes with two apps: a menu bar app that is responsible for controlling the device and the Airspace Home app which is a hub for all the apps that it supports.

To access the Leap Motion Controller’s preferences, click on the menu bar icon and select Settings… For this tutorial you will not need to change any of the settings but if you ever need to troubleshoot your device this is where you find the tools to do so.

The Airspace Home app.

The first time the Airspace Home app opens it will prompt you to create an account; this lets you use the Airspace Store and access Leap’s Community and Support. 

After you have created your account, you will be taken to the Orientation app. This introduces you to the Leap Motion Controller. The Orientation app uses a great visualiser to show a representation of what the Leap Motion Controller is detecting. 

Spend a few minutes playing around with it to develop an understanding of the Leap Motion Controller’s interaction zone and detection abilities.

The Leap Motion Controller's visualisation of my hand.

Tip: If you want to access the visualiser without going through the orientation instructions, click on the menubar icon and select Visualiser…

The Airspace Store

The Airspace Store is where you download free and paid apps that support the Leap Motion Controller. Downloading them from here will add them to the Airspace Home app. At present there are 204 free and paid apps–the iOS App Store it is not!

There are three main kinds of apps that use the Leap Motion Controller. The first are apps that let you control your Mac directly with the device. The second are concept apps that let you do things like sculpt, play musical instruments or explore Google Earth using it. The final type of apps are games.

To install an app from the Airspace Store, visit its page in the store and click on the Free or Buy button depending on the app. If it is a free app, the Airspace Home app will open and start downloading it. If it is a paid app you will need to enter your password to confirm the purchase and, if it is your first time buying an app, add a credit card to your account.

Tip: Some of the apps in the Airspace Store are Windows only.

Apps Worth Checking Out

The quality of the apps in the Airspace Store is mixed. The apps range from incredibly cool tech demos that you will be bored of within five minutes to simple and addictive games you will keep going back to with everything in between. 

As there are so few apps to choose from it is easy to quickly browse the store and download a few that take your fancy. To give you somewhere to start here are two of the apps I enjoyed playing around with.

Duck’n’Kill

Duck’n’Kill is a clone of the old Duck Hunt NES game. You can download it free from the Airspace Store.

Instead of using a bad plastic lightgun to shoot the targets you use your finger. To aim point your finger at the screen. The direction you point controls where the aiming cursor goes. To shoot, jerk your finger up as if it is a pistol recoiling. Although there is only one level at the moment there are apparently more coming.

Playing Duck'n'Kill.

Freeform

Freeform is a 3D sculpting app, designed by Leap, that comes free with the Leap Motion Controller. While it does not have any practical uses, it is an amazing demonstration of what Leap’s technology can do.

All navigation is done using the Leap Motion Controller. You select from a variety of different sculpting tools and use your hands to control them. Leap’s demo video shows what can be accomplished if you get competent with it. Most of my attempts were significantly uglier!

A recent update lets you export your sculptures for 3D printing so, if you get good, that is an option.

Conclusion

In this tutorial I’ve explained the Leap Motion Controller, shown you how to set it up and get started with the apps that support it. In the next tutorial I will be showing you how to use the Leap Motion Controller in your everyday workflows.

If you have a favourite Leap Motion app or if you beat my Duck’n’Kill high score (14900) please let me know in the comments!

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