Thursday, January 24, 2008

Before Touch Screens, Multitouch Mice

As much as I would like for there to be a sub-$1000, tablet-like, touch screen Mac the economics of it just don't work yet. The company Axiotron previewed its Modbook over a year ago and just started shipping them (supposedly). Still, the price of $2,300-2,500 is prohibitive. A Wacom 12.1" touch LCD runs a grand and weighs over four pounds. Unfortunately, I don't think there is enough magic at Apple Labs to deliver the product I crave; however, an intermediate step may be entirely plausible and could ship soon. Imagine grafting together a slightly rounder, flatter Mighty Mouse, a MacBook Air trackpad, and the guts of a Wii controller.

The ideal device that I envision is decidedly a bit ambitious and futuristic, but there are variations on the theme that keep it more practical. First, imagine an iMac G3 "puck mouse" (shudder) without the cord or button. Overlay on this surface the multi-touch, gesture sensitive trackpad that debuted recently on the Air. For just moving the cursor around it is much more convenient to have something physically moving than trying to rub a trackpad just the right way. That is where the mouse nature comes into play. Due to its roundness, it would be convenient if the mouse were inertially sensitive rather than relying on optical movement over a surface. That is where the Wii-like internals would be used. The orientation wouldn't affect the direction of cursor movement. You could move it around without worrying about the direction it is facing, avoiding the annoying problem when the puck mouse would turn. Eventually, this could lead to hand-held devices being moved in 3d space though at that point gestures would have to be handled differently.

For the current iteration, however, the surface of the mouse would register taps (mimicking the behavior of standard mouse buttons) but would also allow the use of iPhone gestures- swiping side to side, pinching and expanding, or rotating. Since these gestures are based more on what is currently selected than the mouse position, it makes sense for that sensitivity to be layered on top of the means of moving the cursor rather than coupled with it.

If an inertially sensitive, orientation-independent version is too ambitious for now, it would be equally plausible to base the design on a slightly flattened Mighty Mouse rather than the puck mouse. This would maintain the standard mouse directionality, and the device could come with a cord or wireless. It would also eliminate the need for the hardware and software to handle Wii-like position sensing. The basic idea of overlaying the gesture sensitivity would be the same.

It may look a little clunky, but the multitouch mouse would provide a new level of interactivity to the Mac interface. It would also leverage the work done on the iPhone and Touch interface and get users used to the "standard" Apple gestures. Until we can get fully touch sensitive notebook or tablet screens, the multitouch mouse would be a welcome step forward.

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