new kinds of computer mice

Mice and machines – interacting with computers (For Production Solutions Magazine November 2000)
by Roger Frost

Little has changed with the way that we interact with a computer. Its mouse has gained a button, and its keyboard a few more but this is where we’ve sat for a while. Even the habit of cursing at the machine is still much the standard way to interface.

But then peek at Quantel’s new iQ platform where the latest of input devices, a 4-buttoned mouse comes to hand. The large mouse, nicknamed ‘the rat’, is one of the tools to control this high definition editing system. Using radio frequency, the wireless device offers a new measure of freedom. With its directional roller switch, like a joy-pad, a colleague across the room can not only be consulted, but also given the reins. Likewise in a meeting with the director, the untethered ‘rat’ can be passed around making for more interactive sessions. Due next year, and part of a system costing half a million dollars, it’s a buy to think about over a weekend.

In times past the computer game player’s force feedback was at the high end and also came at a price. The feature, which now adds kick to a joystick, or rattle to a racing car, was first used in flight simulators. Gears, belt drives and electromagnets simulate adding weight to the controls. Should the simulator need to throw a windstorm, then its feedback joystick would the trick. Force feedback and ‘haptics’, the science of touch, are the domain of California based company, Immersion. They licence their technology to Microsoft, mouse maker Logitech and carmaker, BMW. They will design cartographers a device where ‘mouse’ feedback shows the bumpiness of a terrain. They have made trainee surgeons devices that simulate the squishiness of flesh, so that they might practice their doings on a computer.

And actually in the shops is Logitech’s Force Feedback mouse that not only adds the jolts to games, it’s useful as a normal mouse. Set on a base with a controlling spigot, it adds uncanny texture to the Windows desktop. Screen menus can be felt, buttons seem magnetic, and the drag on a window border resists like elastic. Big files feel heavy and if Windows doesn’t want a file moved it feels stuck. And so on till one believes that the screen is the real stuff. That the links on web pages attract the mouse, hints of how e-commerce web sites will might use feedback – imagine a clothes store where garments can be picked up and felt; or interactive demos with knobs and buttons to twiddle.

Just a sign that a seemingly gimmicky feature is headed into the standard interface is the newly arrived IFeel mouse. Like a normal mouse but with an LED for optical tracking, it offers feedback via a motor built inside. At it’s low-end price, it joins Christmas’s’ array of game gear such as feedback joysticks and steering wheels.

And then there is the puzzle of what BMW want for this technology. One answer is that here is a means to interact with an on-board PC and GPS. If yesterday’s mouse and keyboard are killer apps in a car, in their place might come a feedback controller. It can mimic sliders, buttons and offer different functions in various flavours of feel. How high knobs are set, where the cursor is and where you need to turn are among the possibilities for technology too good for gaming. There will be no cursing at a machine in future, in case it kicks back.

Roger Frost is a freelance IT consultant in London


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