Design Icons: The Computer Mouse

posted on 23 July 2013 by Katie Nicholson

The American technology pioneer and inventor of the computer mouse, Doug Engelbart, died on 2nd July, aged 88. Design manager at PDMS Jim Rawson recalls the evolution of an iconic product and the legacy of a design visionary

I first considered the design of computer input devices first around 1994 while I was at university. They'd been around for quite a while before that, but it was around this time it became clear that we were moving towards a digital-oriented world.

A student housemate of mine with an unhealthy appetite for Apple Macs was experimenting with the burgeoning potential of 3D graphics and presented, for an assignment, a series of virtual rooms you could walk through.

One of the tutors assessing the project was an OAP (Old Age Painter) who amazingly knew even less about computers than me, and had a predilection for eating cheese sandwiches alone in his shack in the woods.

That, combined with the fact that we were subsisting in the dark days of pre-dotcom, made it only slightly surprising when our tutor attempted to use the mouse six inches above the desk, and had to be instructed to put it back on the mousemat.

As someone who now works on the 'fluffy end' of technology,I've always found the way we interact with computers quite interesting. Most of the gadgets we have today would not have been possible without the existence of the computer mouse -an ingenious contraption born from the mindofa creative scientist in the 1950s.

Douglas Engelbart was a modest man but a visionary who created the 'foundations of modern computing'.

As early as 1968 he demonstrated a very basic version ofa'windows' style interface, complete with video conferencing, hyperlinks, networked systems, and - most importantly - a way for a user to control it all with one hand, on a screen.

"I don't know why we called it a mouse, I apologise, it just started off like that and then it stayed that way," he said during his now legendary public demonstration to a gathering of top academics and industry leaders, which became known as the 'Mother of all Demos' (available on YouTube).

He was so ahead of his time that the 17-year patent on his 'mouse' expired before anyone had realised its commercial value. Since 1984 more than a billion mice have been manufactured and sold worldwide, yet Engelbart didn't make a cent from it directly. He was not short of public recognition however, and received a number of awards and prizes throughout his career including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize.

One of the first adopters of Engelbart's invention was Apple, who in the 1980s were so inspired after seeing his invention at Xerox's SRI research facility that their design team scrapped their initial plans and redesigned their product around a mouse-operated interface. Apple reportedly paid Stamford Research Institute a $40,000 license fee to use the technology.

It wasn't long before other Cal-tech firms picked up on the advantages a mouse could offer and by the 2000s it was thede factomeans to control a computer, shipping with both Apple and Windows hardware.

However, in recent times there have been suggestions that mice may face an uncertain future.

Advances in human-computer interaction (HCI) have enabled the use of 'touch' interfaces, motion-sensing accelerometers and the ability to use advanced 'swipe' gestures to make sense of physical gestures in a digital world.

Incidentally, my aging painting tutor who waved his mouse in the air during the assignment was not misinformed - just ahead of his time - today there are controllers that provide reliable accuracy in 3 dimensions by using gyroscopic sensors.

Korean technology giant Samsung is even working on mind control technology that allows users to successfully (albeit slowly) choose, start and stop music tracks using thought impulses via an EEG headset.

Does this mean our mouse population is headed for extinction, along with Betamax, laser discs and mixtapes?

It's certainly possible - but a more likely reality is one where different devices and interfaces are perfected and adapted for carrying out specific tasks. While the mouse has limitations, it still has value where accurate manual input is needed.

New technologies allow for hybrid possibilities and - thanks to Douglas Engelbart - the potential applications of well-designed context-sensitive technology across industries from Super-Mario to medicine are infinite.

Design Evolution of the mouse

Mouse1

1967: Engelbart's design application for a patent graphic user interface which would become the 'foundation for modern computing'

Mouse2

1968: the prototype 'mouse' had a wooden casing, simple 'x and y' wheels and was hand-made by engineer Bill English. It would be 20 years before IT companies understood its significance.

Mouse3

1986: Apple's Macintosh Plus mouse. The problem their design team faced was how to mass-produce a device that cost $400 for less than $25. Steve Jobs insisted that with a single mouse button it would be 'impossible to push the wrong button'. If only all gadgets were so foolproof! 

Mouse4

1998: Apple's 'puck' mouse in Bondi blue. The first USB mouse was widely considered 'one of Apple's worst mistakes' as the round shape made it difficult for users to work out the position of their hand in relation to the screen. The design was so unusable that a startup produced the 'iCatch', a clip-on plastic shell that converted the shape to an oval.

Mouse5

2013: Does the 'mighty' mouse face potential extinction with the development of 'touch' interfaces, motion sensors and even mind-control technology?