Services & Software

Building a better computer mouse

A new user interface--the "mouse gesture"--is slowly winning converts among software developers who hope to simplify repetitive tasks in computer applications.

A new user interface for the PC is beginning to stir.

Popularized by Norway's Opera Software, the "mouse gesture" is slowly winning converts among software developers who hope to simplify repetitive tasks in computer applications.

The idea is to allow people to execute commands with a simple flick of the wrist, rather than navigate through complicated point-and-click toolbars and drop-down menus. In Opera's Web browser, for example, a person who wants to return to a previous page can simply hold down a button and slide the mouse to the left, rather than moving the cursor to the top of the screen and hitting the "back" button.

Opera's solution first appeared about 18 months ago in Opera 5.11. It has won raves from some of its followers, and now others are closing in on similar versions for a range of other applications.

"We're happy to accept the accolades," said Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner. "I don't think mouse gestures are going to revolutionize the user interface. But it's a good idea, and it works."

Programmers associated with the Mozilla open-source team plan to release an upgrade Thursday to a mouse-gestures project known as Optimoz. The effort is one of several to expand the reach of a kinetic, rather than a graphical, user interface (UI) in the browser and beyond. At least one developer is seeking to add gesture functions in popular Windows applications.

While still in development, the Mozilla mouse gestures are already winning fans.

"The tried-and-true, point-and-click method of getting things done still has its place, but I find that for actions I perform often, such as reloading a Web page, making gestures with the mouse is a big win," said David Perry, a programmer at the University of Toronto who was impressed enough to participate in the project.

"The motion of performing a gesture is more natural than sliding the mouse over to a button or menu," he said. "And because it works anywhere in the window (not just on the button), it saves a bit of time and effort, especially as screens get bigger and you have to move farther to reach a button."

Mouse gestures are just one of the latest attempts to improve the PC user interface, which has coalesced around a series of conventions first hammered out by engineers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s and subsequently commercialized by Apple Computer to wide imitation.

User studies have long pointed to inefficiencies in the traditional graphical user interface (GUI), and shortcuts around toolbar menus have been available for years. Most applications offer a set of hot keys, for example, that allow people to execute commands from the keyboard rather than the on-screen toolbar.

Increasingly, shortcuts have focused on the mouse, with manufacturers such as Logitech adding new, programmable buttons to simplify common commands with a single click, including the "back" command in Web browsing. Indeed, mouse gestures have been incorporated into some advanced 3D CAD (computer-aided design) programs, but they are now being extended to ordinary computer tasks.

The efforts come as computer makers rethink the whole PC interface with new classes of devices that rely less on the traditional keyboard--or cut it out altogether--such as handhelds and Microsoft's Tablet PC. The device, which has handwriting-recognition capabilities, is due out Nov. 7.

Logitech said it is in talks with developers working on mouse gestures technology, although it is not yet ready to disclose potential partners.

"We have been looking at the mouse gesture sphere," said Carol Golsch, software product marketing manager at Logitech. "Many of these projects are still in beta, so it's still a little early for some of these things to come to fruition."

Optimoz, StrokeIt
While developers are still awaiting the backing of a major funder, the technology is quickly evolving beyond its perfunctory roots.

Andy Edmonds, a programmer who helped create the Optimoz project in Mozilla, said the project owes its inspiration to Opera. But he said the project has since branched out in new directions aimed at harnessing specific features in the Mozilla browser, such as tabs, which allow better management of multiple browser windows.

In addition, he said, Optimoz is being extended to other Mozilla-based applications, such as chat and mail, and work has begun on creating a general API (application programming interface) for gestures in Mozilla-based applications.

"We extended our function set well beyond the Opera set early on," he said. "My favorite gesture requires a karate game-like 'finishing move.' By dragging over a set of links and finishing with right-up-left, all of the links will be opened in a new window. There's also Easter egg gestures hidden in the code" that reveal hidden features if users know the correct movements.

The development team is working on a learning component that will assist users as they try to master the mouse gestures vocabulary, Edmonds said. One aspect of this will entail a translucent overlay of command strokes that can be called up and used as a legend. A second, interactive feature could involve a pie-chart menu that opens around the cursor and acts as a guide to direct the mouse movement.

Still, he said, inherent limitations in gestures will likely limit its usefulness outside of a handful of commonly used commands, as long as mouse developers remain stuck in a two-dimensional universe. With the advent of 3D environments on the PC screen and the ability to simulate 3D manipulations with new generations of mice, however, he predicted gestures could become increasingly powerful.

That thought was seconded by representatives from Logitech, who said 3D CAD programs seem to be a natural fit for the technology.

"It might be very useful for designers who need to see an object from all sides, and turn them in virtual space," a spokesman said.

Other attempts are under way to extend mouse gestures beyond the browser.

Jeffrey Doozan, founder of Kalamazoo, Mich.-based security and software consulting firm TCB Networks, has created a mouse gesture engine for Microsoft's Windows operating system called StrokeIt that is meant to provide general controls across any application running on the OS.

A sampling of plug-ins on his Web site shows varying implementations of command definitions for applications including the popular Kazaa file-swapping client, America Online's AIM instant messenger, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express and Windows Media player.

Doozan said he developed the gesture to be versatile and he gave users a roadmap for assigning their own commands to specific movements, including macros.

As a result, he said, his gesture engine has the potential to become a powerful, programmable automation tool for day-to-day activities as well as specific tasks such as data entry.

"StrokeIt has the ability to automate practically anything," he said, listing off examples from submissions recently posted to his Web forum. "Whenever you give people the ability to come up with arbitrary commands, they'll come up with something you never even thought of."

While it's unclear whether consumers will embrace the efforts to extend and improve the capabilities of the mouse, they have the endorsement of the device's inventor.

Doug Engelbart, director of nonprofit Bootstrap Institute, said in an interview that he was unfamiliar with mouse gestures, but he applauded the efforts of its developers, saying an overhaul of the standard point-and-click interface is overdue.

"To me, that's like Pidgin English: point and grunt," he said. "It's a very limited vocabulary. The way you're controlling the interface wants to be richer than it is now."