Going touchless

Andrea Chang / Los Angeles Times /

Published Mar 13, 2013 at 05:00AM

AUSTIN, Texas — A San Francisco startup that created a tiny motion-sensing device is making a big splash at South by Southwest, overshadowing major tech brands and scores of new applications with its promise of changing how consumers interact with their computers.

In its debut appearance at the conference known more as a music and film festival, Leap Motion Inc. wowed attendees with its “Minority Report”-style gesture-recognition controller, which enables users to manipulate what’s on their screens with a wave of the hand or lift of a finger. Tech enthusiasts say Leap Motion could help usher in the age of touchless computing.

The company was one of hundreds of startups at South by Southwest Interactive, the tech component of the annual Austin festival that is increasingly becoming a must-attend event for rising technology companies. SXSW organizers said they expected a 5 to 8 percent increase in the number of Interactive registrants this year from 24,569 in 2012.

Whereas the International Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, in Las Vegas is geared toward showing off the latest TVs and tablets, Interactive is more a place for techies to debut brand-new technology and share pie-in-the-sky ideas.

So the most buzz-worthy moments during the five-day event, which began Friday, surrounded the Leap Motion controller and Elon Musk’s keynote, in which the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Tesla Motors Inc. discussed hovering rockets, his idea for a new high-speed mode of transportation dubbed the “hyperloop,” and space travel to Mars.

“I’d like to die on Mars — just not on impact,” Musk said.

Leap Motion’s turn as the belle of the ball also signaled a shift for Interactive, which typically skews more software- and app-heavy. Twitter and Foursquare exploded onto the scene at past SXSW festivals, leading many venture capitalists and technology commentators to look to the conference as a forecaster for the next big Web startup.

This year, however, it was all about the Leap Motion sensor, a 3-inch-long device about the size of a pack of gum. The company announced the 3-D gesture controller in May but waited until SXSW to unveil it on a large scale.

The Leap Motion device, which the company is calling a “new frontier for hands and fingers,” sits in front of a computer and can track gestures within an 8-cubic-foot area. It has a sensitivity said to be 200 times that of Microsoft’s Kinect or Nintendo’s Wii and can even track different finger movements.