How do you control your computer? For most people, the answer is “a keyboard and mouse.”
In the last 20 years of computing, the biggest innovation in input has been the slow shift from cursor-based pointing devices to touchscreen. Yet even here, many users are reluctant to give up their computer mouse, because they see touchscreens as a less efficient and less accurate method of obtaining very similar results.
But what if it’s the computer mouse that’s holding us back?
Mice are considered a jack-of-all-trades that can handle just about any task. Billions of people use them, from gamers to scientists. You might think it was built with broad use in mind — but actually, it was designed to solve a very specific problem.
The roller ball technology used by the first mice dates to 1946, when British scientist and electrical engineer Ralph Benjamin invented the technique for use with the Royal Navy’s Comprehensive Display System. The CDS was used to predict the future position of aircraft, using a joystick to input and control calculations. Sound awkward? Well, it was.
Benjamin felt he could provide a more elegant input method. In an
In the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart and Bill English constructed the first prototype of their computer mouse while working at the Standford Research Institute. It used a wheel, rather than a ball, to track movement — but its physical implementation was like today’s mice. When that idea was combined with the roller ball mechanism, the computer mouse was born.
More: A designer’s dream: How Microsoft built the Surface Dial
In his 1962 paper, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Engelbart refers to his proto-mouse as a “pointer,” and that has a greater relevance. At the time, a peripheral that could point at elements on the screen was sorely needed. But today, our needs have become more sophisticated than the basic “point and click.”
Almost everyone, regardless of their familiarity with technology, is expected to know how to operate a computer mouse. Yet, as the history shows, the mouse wasn’t invented to solve every problem. It’s perfect for selecting a point in a two-dimensional area, but modern computers let users do a lot more than that.
Microsoft’s Dial is a great example. Though it’s new, the dial as a concept is not, even in relation to computers. Dials are used extensively in digital music production and performance. Adjusting the frequency or the volume of a track in a composition is better served by a twistable knob; performing the same action with a mouse cursor feels clumsy and inaccurate.
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