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Five Ideas That Will Reinvent Modern Computing

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The Midair Mouse
Your brand-new wireless mouse? That solves only half the problem. Sure, you're untethered, free to drive your PC from afar. But you still need a flat surface. You may be camped out on the couch or curled up in bed, but you're never more than half an arm's length from an end table or a lap desk.

Soap goes one step further: It works in midair. With this new-age pointing device, now under development at Microsoft Research, you can navigate your PC using nothing but a bare hand. You can lose the end table and the lap desk. You can even lose the couch and the bed, driving your machine while walking across the room. It's a bit like the Wii remote—only more accurate and far easier to use.

Dreamed up by Patrick Baudisch, part of Microsoft's adaptive systems and interaction research group and an affiliate professor of computer science at the University of Washington, Soap is essentially a wireless optical mouse surrounded by a fabric hull. Think of it as a beanbag with some hardware inside. As you push the fabric back and forth, across the face of the mouse, the cursor moves on your PC display.


It's called Soap because it spins in your hand like a wet bar of soap in the shower. "Basically, it's a mouse and a mouse pad in the same device," Baudisch says. "But instead of moving your mouse over your mouse pad, you move your mouse pad over your mouse."

Baudisch built his original prototype using an optical mouse he found lying around the lab and a few household items he picked up from a local RiteAid. He simply pried open his pointing device, pulled out the innards, and remounted them inside an empty bottle of hand sanitizer. Yes, an empty bottle of hand sanitizer—something that was transparent and would easily rotate inside his fabric hull. Once he pulled the hull around the bottle—and slipped some lubricant between the two—he had a mouse that worked in midair.

Because the bottle moves independently of the hull, the mouse can sense relative motion, much as it does when dragged across a tabletop. "The optical sensor looks outward, so it can see the fabric moving," Baudish continues, "and that's all the input you need." It's such a simple idea, but the results are astounding.

Soap is so accurate that you can use it to play a high-speed first-person shooter. At this year's Computer/Human Interaction (CHI) conference in San Jose, California, Baudisch played his favorite games standing up, in open space, without a tabletop in sight. The only restriction was that he couldn't rotate upward (that is, he couldn't make his 3D character do a back flip).

Baudisch plans to add that extra degree of movement, and he hopes to eliminate the lubricant inside the hull—a feature less than conducive to mass production. But his Soap prototype works today, and it has the potential to give PC users a whole new level of physical freedom.

"You get the same functionality of a mouse," Baudisch says. "And it works with any PC or display—whether it's a pocket display or a wall display. The difference is that you can use it in the living room. Or in the classroom. Or even on the subway." — next: The Perfect Machine

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table of contents
IMAX At Home
The Midair Mouse
The Perfect Machine
Extreme Peer-to-Peer
The Man-Made Brain
Milestones of the Future

Dvorak 151 - 6/25

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