It's a good time to be Leap Motion. The hand-tracking company just secured a cool $50m in Series C funding, giving it more momentum to carry us towards its vision of a post-controller future. It's already had a nice head start on the competition, beginning as a hand-tracking peripheral for computers before VR took off and Leap saw an opportunity to reach out and grab.
"One of the reasons we raised the round was to not feel pressured and to target the verticals we feel we add most value to, even if it takes time," said CEO Michael Buckwald when we asked about what this cash injection will do for the company. Last year it announced a logical move into the mobile VR space, promising we'd see partners start to integrate its tech, which puts the user's real hands into the virtual world. So far this year we've only seen Qualcomm's reference headset do so, but Buckwald said we should start seeing more names starting Q4 of this year.
Leap has also bumped up to a 180-degree field of view, making it more proficient at tracking those fingers. Buckwald said Leap will be seeding the new sensor with developers soon, and with a wave of standalone VR headsets on the horizon, there are even more opportunities to bring hand-tracking to the masses.
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VR controls are in the pre-iPhone phase, the Palm Pilot era
The end goal is embodiment. Anyone who's used hands their whole life instinctively knows how to use them in VR too – Leap is just finding a way to get them in there. Buckwald refers to VR as being in its "pre-iPhone" phase at the moment, aka the Palm Pilot era. To him, VR controllers are like Pilot's shorthand gestures, and full hand immersion is the iPhone's more intuitive touchscreen. "For any new platform to be successful it has to have that level of instantaneous understanding," said Buckwald. "Users have shown themselves to have a very thin threshold".
One potential problem for Leap is that Facebook, Microsoft and other big VR players are finding their own ways to tackle hand tracking, and while Leap's had the head start, it's not guaranteed to hold its position forever. Which is why the mobile market might be a better bet. "Even though we do think this is necessary to get the high level VR across that line, it's also a more important enabler for mobile VR," Buckwald said.
With its latest cash boost, Leap plans to reach further around the world, starting with an office in Shanghai where it thinks it can capitalise on a booming Asian market. "We've had a thesis about China that I think is proving true, in terms of China coming into its own as a domestic market for high tech devices," said Buckwald. With the rise of technology behemoths like Alibaba and Tencent, as China has pushed for more entrepeneurship, Buckwald says the company sees an opportunity to take advantage of a pipeline of e-commerce, virtual currencies and in-game monetisation, along with other things like China's culture around gaming cafes. He even sees an opportunity in getting into amusement parks.
Beyond that, Buckwald sees Leap being used in education – it already has a university partner programme – healthcare, training and plenty of other non-gaming areas of VR and AR.
The path to embodiment
Buckwald said Leap has "never wanted to be an anonymous component" in the VR/AR space, and software is another big part of what it's doing at the moment. In order to get to the embodiment we desire, virtual physics need to satisfy human expectations, something Leap is trying to resolve with its Interaction Engine. "You can have the world's most perfect hand tracking, but if you can't interact with digital objects in a physical way it means nothing," said Leap VP Rachel Sibley. "Digital objects by definition don't have mass and force. So how do they behave? How do you interact not only with objects but interfaces in that environment?"
The Interaction Engine helps objects respond more believably, but there's no feedback on the user's hands; if I reach out and pick up a block, it may react according to the laws of physics, but my hand still feels nothing. Leap believes the benefits of having full hand tracking in VR are greater than those enjoyed by haptic feedback, which is why it's not concerned by the problem ("I think wearing a glove would be a bigger problem than the lack of haptics," said Buckwald). However there are some companies using Leap Motion to explore ultrasonic haptics – creating shapes in mid-air that can be felt. And that's a whole area just begging to be further explored.
"This is a domain that I think is worthy of research," said Sibley. "I would like to see many people investigating this and helping to deepen our understanding of this."
With all this in development, it looks like we're only touching the surface of what VR embodiment has in store.