Growing up in southern Florida, David Holz was a tinkerer. “I had a large pile of all sorts of electronics,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how things worked.” In high school, he built a system that uses several microphones to pinpoint where a noise originates; the U.S. military now uses similar tools to locate snipers. Holz’s project took him to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, but he didn’t win a prize. “I lost to somebody who cured a disease,” he says.
Holz, now 23, has moved on from sound-mapping. His new startup, Leap Motion, is dedicated to changing the way people interact with computers. Holz and his co-founder, Michael Buckwald, have built a device about the size of a cigarette lighter that contains three tiny cameras inside. It attaches to a computer and turns any PC or Mac into a gesture-recognition device. The idea is similar to the one behind Microsoft’s (MSFT) Kinect, an Xbox add-on that lets people play games just by moving their hands and body. At $70, the Leap Motion is about half the price of a Kinect. It’s also far more accurate, says Holz. The software that analyzes the images from the three cameras can track all 10 of a user’s fingers and detect movements of less than one-hundredth of a millimeter. “It’s so precise that it tracks down to the tendon,” says Andy Miller, a former Apple (AAPL) executive and now a partner at Highland Capital Partners, which has contributed to Leap Motion’s $14.5 million in funding.
Computer users have been primed for gestural interfaces thanks to Apple’s touch-based devices. Holtz envisions legions of office workers and gamers swiping, flicking, and pinching the air in front of them to interact with their machines. Such gesturing will replace the mouse, which is “a needless layer of technological complexity,” says Holz. Gesture-based computing will be particularly helpful for professionals who work with three-dimensional images, such as scientists examining molecules or energy experts studying oil-exploration maps.
Leap Motion plans to begin selling its devices within a year. They’ve also created software for third-party developers to add gesture recognition to their applications, and the duo expect roboticists, medical imagers, and gamers to take advantage of it. Holz has also been talking with consumer electronics companies about building Leap Motion technology directly into future laptops and tablets. “The end goal is to fundamentally change how people interact with their computers,” Holz says.
Even in the precocious world of startup founders, Holz stands out. He read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in eighth grade and then devised a simple way to test the theory of general relativity. By the time he was in college, studying math at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was doing contract work with NASA. Bill Warner, founder of video-editing software company Avid Technology (AVID), invested in Leap after being impressed by Holz’s wide-ranging intellect. Talking to him “feels like meeting Einstein when he was young,” says Warner.