Leap Motion, a startup with the ambitious goal of convincing people to control a computer with motion gestures such as the turn of the hand or move of a finger, has taken $30 million in new funding as it prepares to start selling its product by March.
The San Francisco company’s $70 box, about the size of cigarette lighter, sits on a computer desk and uses two small cameras to detect when a hand is floating above it. In addition to the new round of financing from existing investors including Founders Fund and Highland Capital Partners, the startup announced today that it has signed a deal with Asustek Computer to bundle the device with some of its computers.
The ability to control a computer without actually touching anything — be it a mouse or glass screen — has long been the vision of science-fiction fans and futurists. Hollywood’s noteworthy interpretation came in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Minority Report.”
Leap Motion Chief Executive Officer Michael Buckwald said the world is finally ready for three-dimensional controls. That’s in part because people are more comfortable than ever with controlling a computing device with finger gestures thanks to Apple and Android-based touchscreen gadgets, as well as using arm movements with Microsoft’s Kinect gaming accessory for the Xbox 360.
“This isn’t as enormous of a leap — no pun intended — as it would have seemed three or four years ago,” said Andy Miller, the company’s chief operating officer and the former head of Apple’s iAd mobile-advertising group.
Leap Motion is part of a small batch of venture-backed startups targeting consumer electronics instead of a safer industry such as software. Others include thermostat-maker Nest Labs, camera-company Lytro and speaker-maker Jawbone. Like many other gadgets, the Leap Motion controller will be manufactured in China.
“Building something is complicated and expensive,” Buckwald said. “We’re going from producing zero units to hundreds of thousands to millions.”
Compared to making software or websites, hardware is tough to pull off, which is why many venture capitalists are not eager to support those businesses. Savvy entrepreneurs often tout hardware as a means to an end, emphasizing the need for compelling software. For Leap Motion, the software created by co-founder David Holz, which works on a PC or Mac, is accurate enough to track movements on all 10 fingers down to a hundredth a millimeter, or about the tip of a pin.
In demonstrations at the company’s San Francisco office, executives show a Jenga-like game in which layers must carefully use their fingers to remove blocks from a 3-D structure without knocking it over. To lure consumers, Leap Motion is counting on developers to build more software tools like that to take advantage of the technology. The company said it has sent out 12,000 units to software engineers to encourage them to create games and other applications, which can be sold through Leap’s app store.
Leap Motion sees a big opportunity in generating revenue from licensing its technology for use in computers made by others. Asustek will be the first to bundle the Leap as an accessory with some new computers. The Taiwan-based company also will be releasing PCs with the gesture-controls fully built in later this year.
Tablet computers and even cars are other potential homes for Leap Motion’s technology, according to Buckwald. “Ultimately, we want this technology to be ubiquitous,” he said.