By Gerry Shih and Poornima Gupta
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Computers controlled by a swipe of the hand - a staple of science fiction flicks like "Minority Report" - could soon hit the mass market as the result of a new deal between Hewlett-Packard Co and a San Francisco startup called Leap Motion.
As the world's largest PC maker, HP's move to embrace motion-sensing technology could potentially change how people interface with computers in the same way that Apple Inc made touch-screen technology mainstream with the 2007 launch of the iPhone - or when Apple first introduced the mouse to consumers in 1983.
Leap Motion, a three-year-old firm with less than 100 employees in San Francisco, manufactures sensor units about the size of a pack of gum, which it claims can track the individual movements of 10 fingers with 1/100th of a millimeter precision.
The units can plug into any computer and allow the use of apps or software designed for motion-control sensors.
Under the new deal, HP will initially ship Leap Motion's sensors with its products before eventually embedding the technology directly into HP computers, the companies said.
The sensors are on sale at major retailers for $80 but will not ship until May 13. The companies did not say when the HP devices with built-in sensors would be sold.
"Consumers want to go to the next level when creating and interacting with digital content," Ron Coughlin, an HP senior vice president in charge of consumer PCs, said in a statement Tuesday. "Leap Motion's groundbreaking 3-D motion control combined with HP technology and amazing developer apps will create incredible user experiences."
The agreement comes at a time when tech manufacturers like Microsoft Corp, Google and Apple have all expressed interest in motion-sensing technology. In 2010, Microsoft brought the technology to millions of living rooms with its popular Kinect box made to be used with the XBox game console. Last year, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd unveiled a television set that could be controlled from across the room with hand gestures.
Andy Miller, Leap Motion's chief operating officer and a former Apple executive, said the motion technology could both enhance recreational uses such as gaming and be a practical tool for business professionals.
In order to show off its wide appeal, Leap Motion has invited third-party developers to make apps in a model similar to Apple's App Store. So far, 50,000 developers have requested developer toolkits to create apps that use gestures to create 3-D models, simulate musical instruments or even manipulate surgical robots.
But Miller hoped that the HP deal could pave the way for gesture-based control in daily, mainstream computing. The next step was to embed the technology into tablets and mobile devices, he said.
"This is great validation for motion-control technology," Miller said. "Going forward you're going to see this embedded in a whole range of devices."
Even if it is introduced only in a limited number of models, the new technology could infuse some much-needed cool into HP, which is in the midst of the multi-year restructuring and has been struggling to stem the decline in personal computers as smartphones and tablets surge in popularity.
The company's consumer PC sales, particularly, have been hurt severely.
HP saw a 24 percent decline in PC sales in the first three months of the year but just managed to hold on to its title of No. 1 global PC supplier, with 15.7 percent market share, according to research firm International Data Corp.
Overall, PC sales slipped 14 percent during the period, the biggest decline in two decades of keeping records, IDC said.
(In 10th paragraph, please read as the number of developers who have requested developer toolkits, rather than submitted niche apps)
(Reporting by Gerry Shih and Poornima Gupta)