SpaceX founder demonstrates 3-D ‘future of design’ 

SpaceX founder Elon Musk, with his usual eye to the future, released a video Wednesday showing off a high-tech method of interacting with the 3-D models used to build rocket engines and the like. It's not quite ready for prime time, but it could be a preview of how we make such things in a decade or so.

Computer-aided design (CAD) users have been manipulating and editing objects in three dimensions for a long time now, but doing so on a 2-D display via specialized mice and keyboards has its limitations. 

Elon Musk
Elon Musk demonstrates the Leap Motion interface with a 3-D model.

Enter the recently released Leap Motion device, which tracks hands and objects in its vicinity using infrared light. We've found it to be remarkably accurate but lacking in applications — but Musk and his team gave it a reason to exist.

By hooking the Leap up to the 3-D modeling software, models of engines and parts can be manipulated with intuitive gestures like grabbing and turning in the air. Add in a 3-D display or virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift, and it must be quite a step up from the desktop version.

Of course, these methods don't yet have the precision or power that professional CAD tools have. A part might need to be designed with precision down to a fraction of a millimeter — and neither the Leap Motion nor our everyday hand gestures are that good.

That said, Musk seems confident that these natural gesture-based ways of manipulating and editing 3-D models will eventually become common among engineers and designers. At the very least, it looks like a lot more fun than a mouse and keyboard.

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Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is