Logitech gets touchy-feely with new mouse

The company will unveil on Monday the first mainstream mice to transmit vibrations when a person scrolls over a hypertext link on a Web page or passes the cursor over a pull-down menu.

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Mice have feelings too, thanks to a new computer accessory that will debut next month.

Logitech will unveil on Monday the iFeel Mouse and the iFeel MouseMan--the first mainstream mice to transmit vibrations when a person scrolls over a hypertext link on a Web page or passes the cursor over a pull-down menu. Consumers will be able to buy the mice in stores and on Web sites, including Logitech's, in mid- to late September.

The right- or left-handed iFeel Mouse will have three buttons and will retail for $39.95. With a more stylized design and a fourth button for the thumbs of right-handed users, the iFeel MouseMan will retail for $59.95.

"This is an entirely new category of pointing device," said Jan Edbrooke, director of product marketing for productivity devices for Logitech. "Up until now, mice really have been used to provide input--just button clicking and scrolling. We're going beyond that with a mouse that can provide you feedback with tactile vibrations."

Logitech's new mouse is the latest in a string of innovations in the increasingly sophisticated world of "input devices," otherwise known as mice. In recent months, hardware makers have introduced a raft of pedigreed rodents: Microsoft's optical IntelliMouse and IntelliEye, Belkin Components' ErgoMouse, Kensington Microware's Thinking Mouse and Genius' NetMouse Pro. Even the lower-end mice have assumed cosmopolitan monikers, including the Genius EasyMouse, Kensington ValuMouse and the IBM Sleek Pearl White Mouse.

Industrial design gurus at Apple Computer announced last month that the company's new computers will feature optical mice, in which sensors replace the conventional balls that roll on mouse pads. Balls track poorly over uneven surfaces, and they must be removed and cleaned lest they collect dirt and break.

An Agilent Technologies optical chip replaces the conventional roller ball on the bottom of the mouse. That allows more room inside the plastic case for a small motor similar to those found in electric fans.

A plastic bar signals the motor, which is tethered to a vibrator, whenever the cursor hits a link or pull-down command. The motor and vibrator turn off when the cursor is in a neutral spot. Vibrations can be disabled or minimized if they become distracting.

If popular, the mice could spark new sensory developments for computers. Edbrooke said several e-commerce companies are working on software that allows mice to "feel" fabrics or materials--a potential boon for online retailers.

One of the biggest complaints of customers at online apparel stores, for instance, is that they can't touch items such as silk scarves or feel the weight of fabric such as fleece or denim before they buy. Edbrooke said new software from e-tailers, combined with iFeel mice, will transmit combinations of vibrations that simulate the bumps of wide-whale corduroy or the smoothness of a Hermes scarf.

iFeel MouseMan Logitech engineers came up with the idea by ruminating on the number of senses computer users must employ to work with the machines. People have primarily relied on sight, and more recently hearing, but developers wondered whether there was a way to incorporate other senses, such as touch.

Oakland, Calif.-based start-up DigiScents is working on the sense of smell. The company is developing a PC peripheral and related software to add scents to computer programs and Web sites.

As for Logitech, "we want to fully develop what we can do with the sense of touch at this stage," Edbrooke said.

As Web pages become information dense and jammed with hyperlinks in relatively small font sizes, many people complain that it's difficult to know exactly when to click the mouse. Logitech said it hopes to find a ready audience with older people, who don't have an innate understanding of the mouse; children, who will thrill to the vibrating novelty; and everyone in between.

Rehabilitation experts said the new gadget could help people who have motor skills problems or minor sight impairment--people who have tremendous difficulty maneuvering the mouse-driven Web.

Jamie Osborne, a rehabilitation technologist at the Center for Adapted Technology at Lakewood, Colo., said Logitech may have built a better mousetrap with the iFeel.

Companies specializing in tools for the disabled have created similar mice, but the prices have usually started around $300 and have hit $500 or more, rendering them inaccessible to most consumers. The Logitech iFeel mice start at $10 more than Logitech's most popular, non-vibrating mouse.

But Osborne said the number of disabled people who will use the mouse is small, and others might perceive the sensory stimulation as gimmicky.

"It sounds cool, but it doesn't sound like a revolutionary technology that's going to change the world," Osborne said. "Sure, people like to feel stuff. But it seems kind of like aroma disks: They're cool, but do they really mean anything?"

News.com's David Becker contributed to this report.