Elon Musk, right, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies and Tesla… (David Paul Morris, Bloomberg )
AUSTIN, Texas — A San Francisco start-up that created a tiny motion-sensing device is making a big splash at South by Southwest, overshadowing major tech brands and scores of new apps 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.
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The company was one of hundreds of start-ups, including many from Los Angeles' Silicon Beach, 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% increase in the number of Interactive registrants this year from 24,569 in 2012.
Whereas the International Consumer Electronics Show 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.
VIDEO: Leap Motion's motion-sensing device
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 start-up.
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.
"We wanted to wait for the right opportunity to show it to people," Chief Executive Michael Buckwald said in an interview. "We did private demos at CES, but this is a much better venue for us because we really like the idea of Leap not just as a product but as a movement."
During the festival, media and conference-goers angled to get a chance to try out the technology at Leap Motion's tent in a downtown Austin parking lot, and several hundred attendees packed a cavernous exhibit hall at the Austin Convention Center to listen to 24-year-old co-founders Buckwald and David Holz discuss its potential. Demos of the technology, which uses Web cameras and infrared LEDs, drew loud cheers and rapturous applause from the audience.
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.
Buckwald said the idea for Leap Motion grew out of a deep frustration with clunky computer interfaces that involve complicated keystrokes, shortcuts and mouse clicks. Instead, the company wanted to build something that feels intuitive.
Unlike other motion-sensing devices that require users to learn special sign language-like gestures, the Leap Motion device understands movements that come naturally: If you want to zoom in on something on the screen, simply move your hand closer to it; to zoom out, draw your hand back toward your body. Spinning your hand in the air rotates an object on the screen.
Using the device, consumers can play popular smartphone games such as "Fruit Ninja" and "Cut the Rope" and create colorful digital paintings by simply swiping the air in front of their screens. Pieces of digital clay can be molded by making squeezing and poking motions.
The Leap Motion controller ships May 13 for customers who pre-ordered; it goes on sale May 19 at Best Buy stores for $79.99. Hundreds of thousands of people have placed pre-orders, Buckwald said, and Leap has sent developer units to 12,000 of the 50,000 developers who applied for one. Apps for the device can be downloaded in Leap Motion's Airspace app store.
Down the line, Buckwald said, Leap Motion would like to embed its technology directly into laptops, tablets, industrial robots and other form factors.