This company’s trying to make cheap AR headsets with hand-tracking tech happen

Leap Motion's Project North Star headset will be made open source and can be produced for under $100 at scale.

Leap Motion (not to be confused with Magic Leap) has been working on making virtual reality touchable without special gloves for the last few years and now it’s bringing its high-tech hand-tracking gesture technology to augmented reality.

Unlike Microsoft’s HoloLens ($3,000 for developers) and Magic Leap’s likely expensive Leap One AR headsets, Leap Motion’s “Project North Star” AR headset will only cost under $100 to “produce at scale” meaning it could help pave the way for mainstream AR.

It’s important to understand that Leap Motion doesn’t make or sell headsets. While the under-$100 price is extremely low, it’s only an estimate of how much it would cost for another company to mass produce their own headset based on the Project Star reference design. 

And if a company were to take on such a task, the actual MSRP for the headset would likely be higher. Probably a lot higher.

That said, the prototype headset Leap Motion has built is pretty good for what appears to be a low-cost option designed to build momentum for AR.

The headset has two “two ultra-bright, low-persistence” displays with 1,600 x 1,440 resolution, each running at 120 frames per second. Additionally, the displays’ field of view is “over 100 degrees.” Those are already markedly better visual specs than what high-end VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer.

The most impressive part of the headset isn’t the promised visual fidelity, but the built-in hand-tracking gestures. Leap Motion says it has incorporated the same 180-degree hand-tracking tech it developed several years ago into Project North Star.

With the tech, you can reach out and touch and grab virtual objects with your hands and fingers without any special glove or wand-like controllers.

There are limitations to Leap Motion’s tech. Without gloves or a handheld controller, there’s no way to feel any kind of haptic feedback.

I touched on this drawback when I tried out Leap Motion’s “Orion” hand-tracking tech for mobile VR headsets in 2016. That didn’t stop me from completely being immersed in the virtual world, though.

“Still, the ability the touch objects in VR with my real fingers was enough to get me hooked,” I wrote at the time.

A prototype of the North Star AR headset.

Image: leap motion

Leap Motion’s planning to open source Project North Star’s hardware schematics next week. Once it’s out there, it’ll be up to hardware companies to figure out how to repackage the tech into something for consumers.

The company’s posted a detailed dive into the headset so definitely check that out if the news has your arm hairs standing up.

While we won’t be getting our hands on a headset like this anytime soon, it’s good news for the entire AR platform. Touchpads and controllers are fine, but if AR is ever to become mainstream, somebody needs to figure out how to manipulate virtual objects so that it feels as natural as reach out and touching them. Good on Leap Motion for rising to the challenge.

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