The iPad and Other Touch Screen Devices Are Crowding Out The Computer Mouse

When I first saw Ariana Eunjung Cha’s article title in The Washington Post, (“The mouse faces extinction as computer interaction evolves“), my first reaction was that the computer mouse will be around for a long time to come. But after reading the article my opinion is now attenuated. Before reading the piece, I felt the mouse was still unchallenged as the ideal computer interface because of its precision, and I still feel that way. If you are working in a program that requires pinpoint accuracy, the mouse is still the best computer interface on the cheap. Trackballs and trackpads work well, but the mouse, and it’s more expensive cousin, the digitizer (used with engineering applications), offer a precision that cannot be found in other computer interfaces, especially touch screen interfaces. But does precision matter?

Most people do not need a precision computer interface. They are not engineers. When you consider the rapid adoption of tablets like the iPad and smartphones like the iPhone and Android, how much longer will we be using the computer mouse? Even if your primary computing device is still a full-fledged computer, it’s increasingly likely to be a laptop and not a desktop, and most laptop users have become accustomed to the trackpad instead of an external pointing device like the mouse.

This fall, for the first time, sales of iPads are cannibalizing sales of PCs in schools, according to Charles Wolf, an analyst for the investment research firm Needham & Co. – The mouse faces extinction as computer interaction evolves

Hanging mice - computer mouse - photo by Jim MeadWhen you consider the rapid adoption of touch screen devices along with younger generations who are more likely to interact exclusively with these devices, it’s not hard to imagine a not too distant future where software is increasingly designed with a “tap and gesture” in mind instead of a “point and click.” But even the touch screen interface could be a stepping stone to the next generation of computer interfaces.

John Underkoffler, a former MIT researcher who was the adviser for the high-tech wizardry that Tom Cruise used in “Minority Report,” says that the transition [to interfaces that replace the mouse] is inevitable and that it will happen in as soon as a few years.

Underkoffler, chief scientist for Oblong, a Los Angeles-based company that has created a gesture-controlled interface for computer systems, said that for decades the mouse was the primary bridge to the virtual world — and that it was not always optimal.

“Human hands and voice, if you use them in the digital world in the same way as the physical world, are incredibly expressive,” he said. “If you let the plastic chunk that is a mouse drop away, you will be able to transmit information between you and machines in a very different, high-bandwidth way.”

The reason the mouse has lasted so long is that once you use it, it becomes an extension of your body. You almost forget it’s there. It’s almost like you are moving the cursor on the screen with your mind. That might sound like and over-the-top explanation, but that’s how any tool works. Once you master the tool, the way you interact with that tool becomes secondary to the job. With the mouse, you are able to get the job done without much thought of the tool and it’s use.

I believe touch based interfaces are only the first step. And I agree with Underkoffler, the holy grail of computing interfaces is open-air gestures combined with voice recognition. But this method of interfacing needs to work just as seamless as the mouse works. It needs to become an extension of the body.

We already have both of these technologies. Modern game systems like Microsoft’s Xbox with its Kinect interface allow gesture based interaction. And voice recognition has been around for decades, but it still doesn’t work the way it does in science fiction movies. But both of these technologies are constantly improving and evolving.

For an old school computer user like myself, it is hard to imagine a day when human beings will interface with a computing device solely with hand gestures and voice commands. And maybe that will evolve into something else yet to be invented. That’s how technology works. Fifty years ago nobody imagined a hunk of plastic called a mouse would become a revolutionary tool for hundreds of millions of human beings around the world. How will human beings interface with computers fifty years from now? / photo by Jim Mead


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