John Kennedy talks to Leap Motion CEO Michael Buckwald, father of the next generation of computer interfaces.
The way Leap Motion CEO Michael Buckwald explains it, our brains are so advanced and mysterious that a child will never really think about the geometry of scoring the perfect basketball hoop, and can still do it with skill. But, ask the same child to write out the geometry it took to get the perfect arc, and it would be a challenge for all but the most gifted of mathematicians.
And that ‘magic’ is at the heart of what Leap Motion is all about: bringing that level of skill and capability into the computing world so that aircraft mechanics can fix an aeroplane engine with the dexterity of their hands and intuitive skill via a robot on the other side of the world, for example. Or, imagine a skilful surgeon performing a life-saving surgery using robotics and the nerve muscles in their hands.
‘Tony Hawk obviously is an amazing skateboarder – probably not because he is the best at writing the equations on the board – but, at the same time, we have brilliant physicists who do understand the equations but don’t have the ability to access their things physically’
– MICHAEL BUCKWALD
For many covering tech, Leap Motion has been something of an enigma and no one has been quite sure what the company is essentially about. Is it virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality? The answer is all of these things but joined in one word: interface.
In July, San Francisco-based Leap Motion raised $50m in Series C funding to develop its hand-tracking technology, which represents the future of computing interfaces in the same way that the mouse and graphic user interface (GUI) informed our understanding of computing from the 1980s to today.
I meet Buckwald at Slush in Helsinki and, even though we are surrounded by the world’s tech press, no one else realises who he is.
The future of computing
Quite simply, Leap Motion represents a future of computing that does not require a computer mouse as an interface, but the natural ability of our brains and our hands.
“We are trying to bring hand and finger interaction to the next generation of computing platforms so that people can interact with technology in the same way we use our fingers and hands to interact with the world around us every day,” he explained.
“We’re focused on interface but certainly, right now, one of the most exciting things is the combination of how our technology has evolved; but, at the same time, these massive new platforms are developing in terms of VR and AR.
“And the vision for Leap Motion has been about very subtle finger and hand interaction but, also, the best metaphors for that are things that are themselves ‘reality’.”
The way Buckwald explains it, our perception of what is possible with technology has really been informed so far by the computer mouse and the GUI.
“With traditional computers and PCs and such, there’s always been the fact that even though your hand is three-dimensional, the computer isn’t and you can’t really reach through it – but with VR and AR, you can.
“Part of the challenge is, what part of the magic is … the incredible universal sophistication of our hands and fingers and how, at the same time, the fact [that] literally everyone in the world can reach out, grab a cup and pick it up without thinking about it. It is tangible and instantaneous, and we don’t think about it and don’t stop and think of all the millions of permutations of nerves and muscles; all the different ways you could do it but, at the same time, that is also what makes it so special. We are creating a physical curve for that as well.”
So, if Leap Motion is developing the computer interface for a world that sees through AR and VR, will the first applications be consumer-oriented or business-oriented? Buckwald believes it will incorporate both, because the computer mouse, for example, transformed personal and business computing equally.
“That mouse for PC was not for consumers or industry, but a fundamental part of the platform. But certainly, there are fantastic uses for both sides. We are excited about being embedded in consumer devices, being in things that have not been as accessible, such as VR and joysticks or controllers that have a high learning curve; but, if you could see your hands, then the learning curve can be instantaneous.
“But also, on the industrial side, [there are] things as diverse as controlling robots in the future that have the full range of motion of the human hand. You can have people controlling thousands of robots around the world with the ability of touch, like aircraft mechanics fixing engines rather than strutting all over the world.
“And certainly, when you think about how our own brains will develop and learning will change, there are things we learn in a unique way for physical interactions, and our brains are a mystery. Referring to the basketball example, he added: “If you throw it a few times, you understand mostly the permutations; you know it because you’ve mastered the geometry, not necessarily the computations.
“So, our brains have this special capacity and there are incredible examples of that. Tony Hawk obviously is an amazing skateboarder – probably not because he the best at writing the equations on the board – but, at the same time, we have brilliant physicists who do understand the equations but don’t have the ability to access their things physically.”
Buckwald believes that if we can take a leap forward in sensing instinctively how things work through a new kind of interface, applying reality to previous analogue experiences or information, our understanding could take a quantum leap forward, too.
‘Our brains are not thinking reality is happening when we are clicking a mouse, but it is when using VR, and that is very interesting’
– MICHAEL BUCKWALD
“Right now, the only things we can interact with are things like basketballs and skateboards; we can’t interact with a quantum particle. But, in VR, if you have hands, you can interact with anything. Perhaps then, a physicist can grow up with the same deep and permanent intuition in our brains for all sorts of things – like music, or how particles move –[compared with] right now, we [only] have things that we can throw or grab physically.
“It’s a very powerful form of learning. We underestimate the neurological side of the interface or how our brains have evolved over such a long time, and have the ability to take in all of this information from a 3D view of the world – that gets lost. Our brains are not thinking reality is happening when we are clicking a mouse, but it is when using VR, and that is very interesting.”
In many ways, Leap Motion is proposing a form of computing that makes even the much-vaunted interface used by Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report seem dated.
So, if we combine new interfaces such as those being developed by Leap Motion with AR and VR with advances in AI and machine learning, are we on the edge of a quantum leap forward in computing as we know it?
“There’s certainly the potential, and that’s why it is such an exciting time. We’re excited to be a part of it and, right now, we are the point where VR will have its iPhone moment.
“The first iterations of VR were not as successful as people would like. It is similar to how it took a decade for mobile phones to become the iPhone, so it is not just the idea but the marriage of input, physics and instantaneous accessibility, which you can have with fingers alone.”
And, with that startling vision for the near future of computer interaction, Buckwald smiled and strode toward the Slush stage where soon after, he literally held the audience in the palm of his hand.
Delegate trying out Leap Motion technology at Slush 2017. Image: Sami Heiskanen/Slush Media/Flickr (All rights reserved)