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Hands-on with The Leap: It’s smaller, better, and faster than you even thought

the leapCheck out our full review of the Leap Motion gesture controller.

This week consumer motion tech made big steps — leaps actually. Startup Leap Motion introduced The Leap, a pocket-sized piece of technology that turns laptops and desktops into hands-free devices.

And this isn’t just a Kinect thrown at a computer, far from it. The accuracy with which co-founders Michael Buckwald and David Holz were able to outfit the device with is astounding, and nearly defies words. The demo video that’s now been seen across the world wide Web looks more like sci-fi than real life. Fortunately for all of us, it now is real life.

I had the chance to go hands-on with The Leap (check out the video after the break), and its ability to capture the minutiae of your movements immediately calls to mind every time I’ve had to repeatedly wave my arm to get the Kinect to work.

Despite the obvious connection, Buckwald tells me that The Leap has its own origins. “It wasn’t motivated by the Kinect or existing technology, but by a deep frustration with something that should be simple,” he says. “A three-year-old can do something with clay, but it takes someone with an advanced education to do that with a computer.”

Buckwald and Holz are childhood friends, who started working on the idea behind The Leap some five years ago. “The way we approached this is fundamentally different than how other people approach motion tech… we didn’t iterate on someone else’s idea,” says Buckwald. “We started from the ground up and tried lots of novel methods that had never been used before. This is why we were able to make it dramatically smaller and more powerful, more CPU efficient, and cheaper. Normally all those things don’t align at once but they can if the method is new and different.”

There are lots of things about The Leap that are jaw-dropping, and one of them is the price. The device is available for pre-order now for $70. Buckwald and Holz tell me the price tag was a weighted decision.

“Lots of people we talked to said we should sell it for a lot of money, and there was certainly a temptation to go the easy route and sell them for lots of money to smaller markets… but we believe people and the human condition can be improved if you give people the incredible power that’s in all computers.”

“Giving people more power seemed more appropriate to make this ubiquitous. We didn’t have to, but it feels consistent with the vision.”

hands on with the leapIn person, The Leap is even smaller and more Apple-like than it seems in pictures. It’s incredibly lightweight, slim, and sleek. It’s nothing like some of clunky hardware accessories we’ve seen that give laptops and computers next-gen capabilities. Tobii and its eye-tracking tech comes to mind, and while it’s amazing, it’s still not exactly discreet (although it’s worth mentioning Tobii is making progress in this department). But this thing is barely noticeable, and it doesn’t feel breakable either.

It’s clear from my brief time using The Leap and talking to Buckwald and Holz that they’re personally excited about what they’ve accomplished. While taking me through its features, Holz was as excited as if it were the first time he’d played Fruit Ninja and used Google Maps with it — and by my approximation, he was days deep in demos.

Leap Motion intends to start working with OEMs to integrate this technology into bezels, keyboards, and monitors, to make the PC experience even more streamlined. And from there, the sky’s the limit: smartphones, cars, appliances — you name it, The Leap can be developed for it.

“It’s a very immature area of computer science,” says Buckwald. “People have been trying to do this for decades but it’s incredibly difficult. It’s still ripe for dramatic innovation.”