The future of the mouse

According to Ralf Groene, the Industrial Design Manager for Microsoft Hardware, the mouse will diversify in the next few years and spawn new devices such as mice designed solely for engineering tasks, models used to remotely control entertainment devices across a living room and mice for gamers that have huge numbers of buttons and switches. "Mice have evolved from a standard form that its everyone to a range of products that specialise in serving particular needs," says Groene. "The enduring success of a mouse comes from its versatility and flexibility."

Bill Rathbone, Product Manager at Kensington, talked to us about some interesting new trends in mouse evolution. One is that the middle mouse button has taken on a new life in some programs. In Firefox, for example, it's no longer used just for scrolling. Instead, the middle button can be used in a variety of ways, including clicking on a tab to close it, clicking a link to open it as a tab and using it with modifier keys to change the browser's font size.

These actions point to a new trend where extra buttons will correspond to very specific features in certain apps. Rodriguez points out that in some engineering programs, mouse buttons are re-mapped so that they can be used to select a line on a vertical or horizontal axis. Another possibility is inertia, where mouse buttons can be lightly touched for one function and firmly pressed for another.

Robert Krakoff, President of gaming mouse manufacturer Razer, is also positive about the future of the device: "With expanded 16-bit processors, 64KB of memory, 5,600dpi sensor chips and speed-of-light controllers, the printed circuit board of today's mouse can rival any military or medical processor."

Touch gestures are already used on the Apple iPhone and the T-Mobile G1, and they will become more common on notebook computers. However, as Fitts' Law demonstrates, the mouse is still the most accurate control device.

Logitech believes that 'mouse gestures' will become more common than touch-based gestures. The idea has already germinated in Windows 7, where the 'Aero Flick' gesture can be used to hide a window. You can also shake the mouse quickly while holding onto a window to minimise it. Other gestures could involve moving to the right to scan through a slideshow, drawing a circle to open a specific application or holding down a key and moving up and down to change audio volume.

Mouse trouble

Of course, not everyone is convinced that the mouse will continue to reign supreme just as it has done for the past few decades. Developments in hardware are already making it harder for the device to keep up. A major challenge over the next few years will be the introduction of very high-resolution screens, where the mouse may struggle to remain a useful input tool.

When the typical monitor is running at 120Hz or higher and at around 170dpi resolution (similar to the extreme clarity of the Sony Digital Reader or Amazon Kindle devices), a mouse may suddenly become imprecise: the cursor will be too small, movements at such very large resolutions will be hard to track and fine adjustments with your wrist will require a mouse that scans at much higher sensor ratings.

In fact, this development could spell the death of the mouse, because these sensitive PCs will require alternative inputs such as speech, touch or a stylus. It also explains why there is no trackball on digital ebook readers; the mouse movement would be too dramatic and hard to trace.

The other harsh reality for the mouse is that, at some point in the future (Razer's Krakoff estimates that it could be within 10 to 15 years), computers could become 'thinking machines' that do not need to be controlled so precisely.

In development work, software might only require keyboard input or speech recognition to explain the general goal or outline of the task, and the computer itself would do the precise measurements. This trend is already emerging in image editing through Web 2.0 tools such as Picnik and Snapfish, which use advanced server-side filters to alter images in fine detail with minimal input from the user.

Clearly, if the computer does become smarter, touchscreen devices become more pervasive and mobile phones match the processing power of notebook computers, the mouse as we know it might only last another decade or two.

But that's not something we need to worry about just yet, because the mouse is still used to control 95 per cent of all computing functions (at least according to Bill Gates' estimation). So, in the unlikely event that you're a mouse and you're reading this, don't worry. We won't be packing you off to the great cheese factory in the sky just yet. Just don't get too complacent.

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First published in PC Plus, issue 280

Like this article? Then check out Thanks for the memory: the story of storage

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