Tech Smart: Input Adjustments

March 21, 2012
Noah Levine
Issue 10

I can still remember the first time I came across a computer mouse when a childhood friend was showing me the brand new Apple Macintosh computer in the corner of his family’s kitchen. Sure, I’d grown up in a house where there was always at least one machine, but our tan and brown Commodore 64 was text controlled, forcing me to quickly learn both rudimentary typing and the basic commands in order to use the computer on my own. So when I encountered that pixilated cursor and the new concept of pointing and clicking, I was completely blown away.

I can still remember the first time I came across a computer mouse when a childhood friend was showing me the brand new Apple Macintosh computer in the corner of his family’s kitchen.

Sure, I’d grown up in a house where there was always at least one machine, but our tan and brown Commodore 64 was text controlled, forcing me to quickly learn both rudimentary typing and the basic commands in order to use the computer on my own. So when I encountered that pixilated cursor and the new concept of pointing and clicking, I was completely blown away.

This marked a whole new way of interacting with a computer, a method so simple and straightforward that there was no new language to learn. All that was required to make that computer start a program or open a file was mastering the movement of the mouse in order to point it at what you want and a click to start the action.

Getting GUI

Prior to the rise of the computer mouse computers were operated via text based interfaces that required the user and the computer to speak the same, often limited language. (Prior to that early computers were controlled via punchcards, which was an even more limited platform on which users and machines could interact.) But the mouse simplified things by shifting text to a secondary role and letting computer users take control via a Graphical User Interface (GUI, which is often pronounced as gooey).

The power of interacting with graphics is apparent from the first time a user comes across a computer. Folders containing files look like folders, the place for deleting files is a trashcan and applications, discs and other items can be represented by images of what they are. Finding things becomes easier than ever before, and navigating the computer can be taught in minutes.

The Macintosh marked the first commercial GUI, and personal computing has never looked back. Microsoft adapted this approach with its Windows operating system and quickly grew into a massive software powerhouse. The designs and capabilities of these interfaces have certainly advanced over the years with animated icons, better graphics and reimagined folder structures, but the GUI has withstood the test of time and probably will remain as the main way we communicate with our computing devices.

Controller evolution

Beyond simplifying the commands required to control a computer, the GUI created opportunities for the development of a range of peripheral and integrated devices for navigating those graphical control landscapes. For more than 20 years the mouse remained the primary control device.

Computer mice could be found roaming the limited confines of mouse pads before lasers replaced the trackballs and the control devices were let loose on just about any flat surface. The number and placement of buttons changed, as did the size and shape of these devices, but for quite a while, the mouse was king of computer controls.

But that’s not to say other controller concepts haven’t made a run at the throne. Joysticks and jog-wheel equipped paddles were the preferred controllers for early video games. Whether for capturing handwritten notes or sketches, pen input and control schemes have also been around for quite a while.

The trackball was another concept that gained some traction in the industry. At first it was the way we controlled arcade games like Centipede and Crystal Castles, but trackballs have found use in a number of additional ways. At first they were basically inverted mice that didn’t have to be moved around the physical desktop to control a cursor within the virtual desktop. Then they became mobile controls with integration into some pre-smartphone cell phones such as the BlackBerry Pearl.

This concept was also evolved into the keyboard-embedded knobs found on some laptops. However, the knobs were never a popular controller scheme, and laptops quickly evolved around a touchpad for control of the cursor. The touchpads have grown in size and capability over the years with the addition of multi-touch commands. They’ve also led us to the current state-of-the-art in computer control, touchscreen.

Immersive control

While touchscreen controllers have been around for quite a while at gas station pumps, supermarket checkouts and other commerce kiosks, they were truly ushered into the world of popular computing devices with the 2007 introduction of Apple’s iPhone.

This shift in control technology seemed subtle at the time, but it actually required a major overhaul of how the operating system would be designed. Once optimized for touch, computer operating systems become even more intuitive to use and training is almost an afterthought.

Just touch what you want it to do and it does it. If you’ve never seen a baby with an iPhone, look for a video on YouTube, it’s amazing how quickly they understand how to make this strange device do something. It’s an immersive control set up that makes the user a part of the device he or she is using and it fits well with other innovations in computer control such as haptics which allow touch controls to provide physical feedback based on the commands given and motion control which uses cameras to capture the user’s movements to allow touchscreen like control simplicity without any actual touching taking place.

Where it’s headed

What started with smartphones just four years ago is now firmly established in the design of tablet computers and many newer PCs. The mouse will not disappear overnight, but touchable design aspects are being integrated into the latest versions of both Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X.

Both operating systems have borrowed aspects from their mobile OS cousins to make desktop computing the same type of immersive and intuitive experience. It’s an example of hardware innovation driving software design and it’s likely going to stay a trend in how computers continue to evolve. Drawing on a computer and fingerpainting are likely to be similar experiences going forward (although the former will remain the less messy of the two).

All this means computers will grow in their capabilities even as the learning curve for new users gets smaller. As touch becomes the mode of control, users no longer have to even bother learning the nuances of a mouse or another device. They just tap on what they want and there it is.

This concept is likely to be the next control paradigm, but it will probably quickly combine with the possibilities available via motion control systems. This could mean computers that are as easy to use as touchscreens, but without all the fingerprint smudges. Much like in the movie Minority Report, computer users may interact with projected graphics, shuffling them around in mid-air and tossing away the icons they no longer need.

The computer mouse may soon be a thing of the past, as trackpads take over for a brief transitional period until full-scale physical touch control moves into the majority and then quickly cedes way to virtual touch controls that offer the same level of interaction, without any of the actually touching.

Of course all the software design built to optimize touchable computers will need to be reimagined once technology allowing computers to be controlled via thought is perfected.