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Shaky hands? Mouse adapter promises relief

British electronics company taps IBM technology to help people with Parkinson's disease and other tremors. Photos: Gadget calms shaky mouse

A small British company is selling a mouse adapter, developed by IBM, that compensates for trembling hands and could help 3 million people in the United Kingdom and many more worldwide.

After deeming the device noncommercial, IBM licensed it to niche electronics company Montrose Secam, which will now sell it for 65 pounds ($124). The device, which plugs in between a mouse and computer, filters signals to remove erratic movements such as those experienced by people with Parkinson's disease or hereditary disorders such as essential tremor.

"I am also a sufferer of the very thing it is designed to help," said James Cosgrave, director of Montrose Secam, who heard of the technology and its inventor, IBM researcher James Levine, in a newsletter from the International Essential Tremor Foundation (IETF). "I wrote to the IETF and they put me in touch with James Levine. He was impressed by my keenness and sent me a prototype."

Montrose Secam has helped develop and improve the adapter: "Today, we are adding USB," said Cosgrave, referring to the widely used technology for connecting peripherals to computers. Previously the box connected only to PS/2 mice and a PS/2 port.

"The adapter uses a small microprocessor to apply a digital low-pass smoothing filter to the motion data from the mouse," explained Levine. "The effect is to suppress rapid tremor oscillations, which typically take place at a few cycles per second or faster, while leaving the slow, steady, progress toward the user's goal. A knob allows adjustment of the degree of smoothing, to suit the individual."

It also has options to filter out short, inadvertent mouse clicks and to "clean up" double-clicks that Windows would reject as too slow or too far apart.

People without tremors tend to use the mouse quickly and will notice that the computer is less responsive, said an IBM spokesman. This is one reason for making the device a separate box, which can be easily switched on and off. "We made the controls simple and avoided LEDs and buttons," said Cosgrave.

Cosgrave was a professional pilot before setting up Montrose Secam with his stepson, Hugh Pearson, 10 years ago. "Essential tremor doesn't stop you flying or driving," said Cosgrave, who still flies aerobatic planes. "It does stop you when it comes to using a PC."

In the future, the adapter is likely to become smaller and could be integrated with mice. A software-only version may also appear.

IBM has kept its intellectual property but licensed the technology worldwide to Montrose Secam, so the company can develop the product and sell it at an affordable price: "If we were selling it at a commercial level, it would be much more expensive," said Cosgrave. "I hesitate to use the word 'subsidized' but it is extremely reasonably priced."

Peter Judge of ZDNet UK reported from London. Martin Fiutak of ZDNet Germany contributed to this report.