Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Microsoft’s insane new multi-touch mice demoed on video

The other day, I went on a short tour of some of Microsoft’s Labs, where they do everything from rapid prototypes of new products to acoustic testing in anechoic chambers. Most of my time was spent in the Applied Sciences group’s labs, where they are working on some seriously interesting devices. And they’re not just into mice; in fact, the lab’s specialty seemed to be anything to do with optics and/or input. This lab worked on Project Natal, and also on the pressure-sensitive keyboard I wrote about a while back.
They were kind enough to show me all these crazy multi-touch mice, and, when I was too inept to demo even one of them solo, offered to go through them with me on video. Remember that none of these devices are final in any way! The side mouse, for instance, would be much smaller if it were a product, and these weren’t really sculpted at all to fit in your hand.
Let’s just go through them again in text form so you know what you saw. Click the legend here to embiggen.
The Cap mouse is the one I picked as the most ready for deployment. The curved capacitive sensor that makes up the “head” of the mouse is known technology despite being one of the only curved sensors out there, and the form factor of the mouse will be familiar to anyone.
The Side mouse is perhaps the most unorthodox of all the mice shown. It throws out a swath of IR light and watches what it hits; it sounds strange but watching video of the sensor’s view, you can tell that it’s a perfectly good way of telling depth and so on. I personally thought this would do better at the top of a mousepad, to be activated at will while you have a normal mouse for everyday stuff. Here’s that video:

Frustrated Total Internal Reflection, or FTIR, isn’t a catchy name for a mouse, but as a technology it’s quite interesting. The arched acrylic sheet you see has IR LEDs shining light into it at all times. It’ll travel along the sheet and dissipate harmlessly, but if you touch the sheet anywhere, it’ll reflect off your finger and be picked up by the camera that’s underneath. It’s extremely high-resolution and can detect the tiniest movements. This one retained the mouse shape almost as well as the Cap mouse. As he notes, it does remind one of the Arc mouse, which I liked a lot.
One I thought might come out as a completely different product was the Orb mouse. Like the FTIR mouse, it has a camera, but this camera is pointed at a chrome dome that allows it to see every part of the frosted orb. This means it can detect touches anywhere on the thing’s surface. It works as well as you’d expect, but what set me off was the idea that you could actually have a little projector in there that could rear-project images and controls onto the frosted surface of the orb. It’s a bit like the way the Surface display works. I mentioned this and they implied that they were “aware of the possibilities” (I think I hit something good).
Lastly, you have the Arty mouse, short for articulated. This thing is like a cross between a regular mouse and the Novint Falcon. Its little limbs are for resting your thumb and forefinger on, and each is equipped with an optical mouse sensor. It’s like a regular mouse with arms, and it’s a bit disturbing to use. But it is cool — I can see this kind of thing being used for perhaps 3D model editing, but it seemed foreign and fragile, not very easy to sell.
Does it matter?
Multi-touch mice, eh? With laptops ascendant, touchscreens multiplying, and stuff like Natal on the horizon, isn’t it barking up the wrong tree to be putting this stuff on a mouse? A little bit, but not entirely. The mouse is still the standard interface for probably 90% of computers out there, and if they can improve it, they can both extend the life of the decades-old device and introduce multi-touch controls softly into both the OS and the user’s mind. If Microsoft can make a device that is as easy to use as a normal mouse, but with the added benefit of multi-touch (I see the Cap mouse doing this in the shortest time), people will eat it up, provided it’s not too expensive.
At any rate, it’s projects like this that push the boundaries of input technology. If multi-touch mice aren’t be a hit, there were advances made and experiments done that will enable or ease other advanced input techniques.
Regular readers will know that the demonstration of these mice follows closely on the rumor that Apple is creating a new Mighty Mouse, perhaps to be multi-touch as well. That’s all well and good, but there are two reasons why that really doesn’t matter. First, Apple has never made a good mouse. Never. Every mouse they’ve ever made has been bad, from the puck mouse to the clear “pro” mouse to the Mighty Mouse, they’re awful one and all. So I don’t think these guys, who could design a better mouse than Apple in their sleep, are worried about that. Secondly, Microsoft sells mice to Windows users primarily. The software and optimizations are for Windows 7 with its touch support built-in. The Mac mouse market isn’t big enough or important enough to worry about.
Thanks to the Applied Science teams for letting me into their lair. The mice are all very interesting devices, and it’s fun to see them in their larval forms.
There’s more video and documentation of the mice and project here if you’re interested.

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