Leap Motion's Much-Needed Hand Tracking Hops Onto OSVR

Leap Motion has been around for a while on the PC side of things, and just as the company's hand-tracking input technology took the form of a simple PC peripheral before it became embedded on shipping systems, so now will it be available as a VR peripheral (and will also be embedded into a VR headset).

The company announced that its faceplate will be available with the OSVR HDK (Hacker Dev Kit) starting in June.

Leap Motion already believed strongly in the "magic of hands and fingers" as input tools, as opposed to the old keyboard-and-mouse method, and it's impossible to deny how much more important using your own fingers and hands is to VR.

For as marvelous as the Oculus Rift is, it lacks of any hand tracking, which is a major feature omissions made all the more apparent by the Vive VR's Wiimote controller-like hand tracking. However, as Leap Motion CEO and co-founder Michael Buckwald pointed out to us, even Vive only gives users a facsimile of their hands; users can't actually see their own hands, and they don't have that completely granular control you get with your hands and fingers.

"The desire to interact with your hands [in VR] is very powerful," Leap Motion co-founder Michael Buckwald told us in a briefing.

(He did note, for the record, that Vive's method is actually more ideal than Leap Motion for some applications, such as gaming, where you'll want a controller for something like shooting a weapon.)

What Leap Motion provides is essentially a high-speed infrared camera that, when mounted on your OSVR headset, provides a pass-through view of your actual hands. In a way, it's almost like reverse augmented reality; instead of overlaying images onto the real world, it's adding back in some of the real world to a closed VR experience.

Leap Motion tracks not just the image of your hands, but their full skeleton, with all the subtle movements therein. Further, it tracks a wider field of view than what your VR helmet "sees," so it's essentially aware of your hand movements even more than you are.  

Buckwald told us that latency for one hand is 6-8 ms, while latency for two hands is a bit slower at 8-12 ms. In our brief experience with Leap Motion’s hand tracking on the OSVR at GDC, we found some issues pertaining to being able locate our hands, as well as noticing that the tracking missed some of our hand movements.

To be fair, though, this tech is still in beta, so we expect the final version to be a better experience. It's also worth noting that, really, the magic of Leap Motion is in the software more than the hardware, so there will likely be a few bumps along the way as the company transitions to crafting its software for more hardware than just its external faceplate.

The Leap Motion faceplate is modular, and so it should pop off of and reattach to a VR headset easily. However, Leap Motion wants its technology to become embedded in the headset, not just attached. That should happen relatively soon, possibly when its hand tracking technology is out of beta.

The OSVR partnership is a big deal for Leap Motion, but it's just the beginning. Buckwald told us that he wants to see Leap Motion's tracking technology embedded in as many VR HMDs as possible.

When it's embedded in the OSVR headset, Leap Motion will be set to take off; "Developers can write code for a single platform that works across multiple hardware devices, and consumers get a consistently smooth experience," noted the press release. The software also includes an integrated OSVR motion plugin that can support other "motion device types" beyond just Leap's solution, and existing Leap Motion developers should easily be able to extend their applications into the environment. The software will allow apps to be device-agnostic, and it will support the Unity and Unreal game engines (and maybe more--the release notes are somewhat unclear on that point).

Further, "Developers can also utilize the OSVR Imager Interface which provides access to the Leap Motion Image API," read the press release. "Developers can include video pass-through for other applications, opening up a wide range of possibilities for computer vision apps."

You can preorder the Leap Motion faceplate with an OSVR kit on the OSVR webstore starting in May. OSVR would not confirm pricing, but Leap Motion told us to expect that the faceplate will add around $79.99 to the cost of an OSVR kit, which is usually priced $199.99. There will also be an OSVR kit available with a pre-integrated, embedded version of Leap Motion.

Follow Seth Colaner @SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

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