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Asleep on the Bench, Apple Gets Out-Innovated

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jun 27, 2013 5:00 AM PT

I spend freakish amounts of time in front of computer screens, most of it in front of my MacBook Pro, but also more hours than I care to recall in front of my Lenovo laptop PC. The OS, the apps, the trackpads, keyboards and mice are all important -- but they're also very traditional. What's not traditional is Leap Motion, which has created an astounding new way to interact with your computer. Note that I just said "computer" and not "Mac."

Asleep on the Bench, Apple Gets Out-Innovated

What Leap Motion does is let you wiggle your hand and fingers at your Mac -- or PC -- to interact with it and with apps that use its motion detection engine and framework.

What's This?

Imagine being able to point, tap, flick, zoom and turn through apps on your Mac simply by waving your hand around and pointing.

Now imagine browsing the Web, quasi-working while having a lunch of greasy nachos -- and you're wearing a nice shirt. I'm not ambidextrous, so this means my off hand has to do the feeding.

Let's just say I keep a full bottle of stain cleaner handy at all times.

However, with Leap Motion, I could flick around the Web and I'm pretty sure the sensors wouldn't care if there happened to be a little grease on my fingers.

Now, does this really matter in the big scheme of things? Nachos? Not really. One of the reasons healthcare workers like iPads, however, is that they can touch and swipe them -- and then easily wipe them down to keep things sterile. Imagine a freakishly effective interface that would let doctors or nurses flick, point and interact without touching? Do you still need a grimy keyboard cover? Maybe not.

Come On, We All Know Games Are More Important

One of the video teasers of Leap Motion in action shows someone flying a jet simply by moving a hand through the air in front of the screen. How about slicing and dicing, pushing and shoving? It doesn't take much imagination to consider how hand motions could enhance game play on a Mac.

How about a guy who's sneaking through a forest and comes up to a bush with something going on behind it? A simple hand gesture could peel back the bush to let you see beyond. This sort of fine hand gesture points out how intuitive and intimate you can get with your apps, games and operating system.

Possibly more effective: How about navigating a 3D version of a map? Right now, on my iPad and somewhat on my Mac, I can zoom in and out of maps and Google Earth. I can rotate my view and change my perspective. It works pretty well. I can only imagine how well it might work if my hand didn't have to translate my intention on a flat touchscreen or trackpad.

OK, the Cool and Useful Factor Has Been Established - What's Wrong?

What's wrong with this Leap Motion picture? It's not coming from Apple. While Microsoft is delivering full-body game play with its motion-sensing Kinect system, Apple has nothing. While other PC manufacturers are at least trying to combine the benefits of a working laptop with a swappable, content-consuming tablet, Apple has discreet devices that do discreet things.

Beyond the initial innovation of Apple iOS-based touchscreen navigation and swipeable Magic Mouse and Trackpad, I keep waiting for Apple to make the next leap. Perhaps Apple is working on this sort of navigation and interaction, but there have been no rumors, no hints. Maybe Apple's secrecy machine is working better than ever.

Or maybe Apple is sitting on the sidelines, half asleep on the bench.

Meanwhile, Leap Motion is taking a page out of Apple's playbook. The tiny company is creating a community of developers and enabling them to produce apps that utilize the Leap Motion controller, which works on both Macs and PCs and costs a reasonable US$79.99 -- shipping in July.

Like the Apple App Stores, Leap Motion is launching an Airspace store, which Leap is calling "the first-ever place for first-ever apps." Sounds eerily like a finely honed message from Apple, doesn't it?

What's all this add up to? Leap Motion sure seems like it's getting set to make a new dent in the universe by doing what Apple might have been able to do back in the day: Create a kickass product, foster the ecosystem, become the store owner.

Makes me wonder why Apple just didn't buy out Leap Motion last summer. Maybe it tried. Maybe Leap Motion refused. Yet I look at having more than $100 billion in the bank, and you know what I find to be a yawn-inspiring investment? Buying back Apple stock. Apple should have wheeled serious money in front of Leap Motion. Big money. Hard-to-turn-down money -- along with the resources to deliver its controller framework faster and better, without delays.

Now Apple is either going to have to compete -- or allow Leap Motion to become the most important and innovative new Mac interface controller.

At the same time, Asus and HP are already planning to add Leap Motion gesture-based capabilities to their products. Is Apple going to out-innovate Leap Motion? Or is Apple going to simply shuffle into line and license the tech, too, just like everybody else?

Seems a little unlike Apple, letting something so important slide for what's starting to seem like a very long time.

Unfortunately, here's what we don't see from Apple: It doesn't seem to have an acquisition strategy that lets it acquire a company, provide it with resources, and let it innovate. Seems as if the companies are integrated and broken -- isolated into secretive hives and assimilated in the Apple way.

That would be fine if Apple were anywhere near providing the kind of tactile interaction with our Macs that we want and expect by 2013 -- fancy glass-covered trackpad be damned.

I'm surprised we still have nothing from Apple, but I'm delighted that Leap Motion's world will launch in July and let us Mac lovers come play, too.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.

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