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Big thinkers, journalists, and all-around technophiles have written for Technology Review's blog over the past few years.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A New Type of PC Mouse

A project spearheaded by prolific Microsoft researcher Patrick Baudisch has produced a wireless mouse for PCs that doesn't have to just sit on a desk. Called Soap, the device is a modified optical mouse. Judging by this video, it's good for playing PC video games, clicking through presentations, and, Baudisch hopes, operating MP3 players and other personal electronic devices.

Airborne PC controllers aren't new; they've had various incarnations. But so far consumers have been cool to the idea. That attitude seems to be changing, though, as Nintendo turns heads with its new video game system, Wii, in which players use a motion-sensitive remote controller to fly planes, hit baseballs, and shoot bad guys. In addition, last year, gadget maker Gyration began offering a mid-air mouse for PCs with one gigabit of storage, called Gyrotransport.

Soap differs from both in its simplicity. Instead of adding a gyroscope, as with Gyrotransport, or designing a new type of remote controller, as Wii does, Baudisch and his team took advantage of a standard mouse's built-in optical tracking system.

They placed a "hull" of stretchy fabric around the insides of a mouse, after removing the plastic case, so that it covers the optical sensor. To move the cursor with precision, one gently tugs at the fabric over the sensor. To send a cursor traveling across the screen, one rolls the mouse within the fabric shell.

In the video, Baudisch demonstrates it with game-playing accuracy -- and also reveals details about how to make your own. (Note: the instructions are about two-thirds of the way through the clip. I didn't try making one, so I'm not sure how thorough they are.)

It's a far cry from the first computer mouse, which debuted in 1964, when Douglas Engelbart, a researcher at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA, gave a presentation to an audience of 1,000 curious engineers. At that time, the device was a box-like contraption, yet it still impressed the crowd by moving a cursor across a computer screen. Here are some videos of that demonstration.

Even though computers have changed dramatically in 40 years -- shrinking to the size of mobile phones, and able to respond at the tap of a finger -- the mouse has remained entrenched in its original design and function, with minor modifications. It's unlikely that Soap will replace the traditional mouse -- it's much more suited for gaming and presentations uses.

But it may also have a place in portable computing. As devices shrink, current interfacing methods, such as the tiny keyboard and PDA stylus, are becoming increasingly awkward and frustrating. Could Soap make mobile computing easier? Check it out. And let us know what you think.  -- By Kate Greene


A New Type of PC Mouse