In the short history of computing, an ongoing research project is human-computer interaction (HCI). We know the results of this research as the ever-expanding catalog of input devices developed since the 1950s for interfacing with computers. A few successful and obvious ones are: the keyboard, the mouse, the trackpad, the touchscreen, the pen, and the joystick. If most of design labor today is produced with mice (and/or pens), why are there so few discussions on those instruments? In a field bombarded with debates on the digitization of design, I‚Äôve found everyday devices to be the most fascinating, yet overlooked, subject. So in lieu of reviewing the latest touchscreen, VR controller, or AR app, I‚Äôd like to talk briefly about mice and pens.
When it comes to drawing on a computer, designers are quite comfortable with these two instruments. They are tools that embody an elegant balance of ergonomics, precision, and intuition. The mouse, with its hand-cradling design, is by far the most common. It can be manufactured cheaply and has an average of three buttons. The pen, on the other hand, is not as ubiquitous. It is often expensive due to its pressure sensors, and it requires a compatible surface. But this was not always the case. Though we typically associate the mouse with personal computing, it was the pen that paved the way for dynamic interfaces.
The computer mouse was invented at the Stanford Research Institute between 1963 and 1964, and it was debuted in 1968 at what is now referred to as ‚ÄúThe Mother of All Demos.‚ÄĚ This event introduced the world to an interactive screen and its possibilities: word processing, file storage, and graphics. The mouse was a central component as it allowed the demonstrator and research director, Douglas Engelbart, to move around the 2-dimensional, X-Y plane of the screen seamlessly. Most of the demonstration was, of course, slow and glitchy, but the reason for its matriarchal label is simple: many of the highlighted behaviors are still in use today. We type text on word processors, navigate from window to window, and mouse movements still correspond to X-Y coordinates.
Before the mouse, however, there was the pen; and before the pen there was the gun. This is largely because the pursuit of drawing on a lit screen was first taken up, unsurprisingly, by the military. Project Whirlwind, a 1945 Department of Defense research project conducted at MIT, would gain notoriety in the history of computing for its pioneering work on computer memory and real-time processing, but it was also responsible for developing the first handheld computer-screen interfacing device: the light gun. Though much of the focus was on the design of a physical computer, the Whirlwind machine itself required a means to interact with the operator. The solution was a large, round cathode ray tube (CRT) screen with a handheld electron gun (think: a precursor to Nintendo‚Äôs 1984 game Duck Hunt).
A light gun works like this: it contains a light sensor which, when pointed at a CRT, generates a signal each time the electron beam raster passes by the spot the tip of the gun is pointing at. The point is then stored in the computer‚Äôs memory and can be retrieved at any time. If a dot on the screen represents an airplane, the gun can retrieve data about that object. The gun eventually morphed into a pen, a much more benign accessory. The pen invited one to draw‚ÄĒrather than target‚ÄĒobjects. This would in turn provide the framework for Ivan Sutherland to develop Sketchpad, the first CAD program, which used the pen as the core input device. After Sutherland and Engelbart, the history of mice and pens is a bit more familiar. Apple and Microsoft enter the picture and mice become household items, while pens are adopted by the professional graphics industry.
But this abridged story of mice and pens sheds little light on their physiological effects. These devices are as much a part of our emerging digital behaviors as the images on our screens. The sheer variety of ergonomic designs and accessories available to treat side-effects of their daily usage signals their very real imprint on our physical bodies.
Consider the photographs taken by Howard Schatz at the 2000 Olympics. Here professional athletes are placed side by side and one can easily see the effects of physiological specialization. While designers may not have an optimized body type, I know plenty of them with