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A New Mouse in the House

October 14 2008 | by

iPhone 3G

Sometimes I get Mac envy. Like today when I was switching between my touchpad and wireless mouse to prevent hand fatigue and cramping, I had wished I owned a MacBook Air, which has a giant touchpad and offers an easier, more fun ‘touch’ experience using several fingers. I began thinking about alternative mouse devices, especially for people with physical and motor impairments. For those with limited motor skills, there are a variety of options that have been around for a while, including the joystick, head pointers, Mouse keys and eye gaze devices. But the coolest non-mouse is known as multitouch, which was popularized by Apple’s iPhone, and lets computer users control graphical applications with their fingers. Touch is quickly becoming a common way of directly interacting with software and devices. Today iPhone and MacBook Air are used by millions of people with and without disabilities, and other companies are bringing products with multitouch to the market. For instance, Microsoft recently unveiled its Surface product that runs on Windows 7 (due out in late 2009) which lets its corporate customers use multi-touch in their stores. While Surface costs an approximate $5,000-$10,000 for each unit, it’s likely that Surface will one day be integrated into consumer PCs and the price will come down. Already, the Dell Latitude XT tablet uses multitouch, which is a good option for someone who can’t grasp a mouse and wants the functionality of a traditional PC. You can use your finger or a stylus instead. Take a look at other cell phones that are utilizing touch to let you zoom in on text, advance through a photo album, or adjust an image. These include the Blackberry Storm and Google’s G1 (reviewed here by Information Week). G1 uses a combination of touch, trackball and physical keyboard, which is nice for the user who likes to have navigation options. Some people with motor disabilities already use their chin, elbow, or tongue to control a trackball. The Storm multitouch screen uses something called “haptic touch” so when you press a button on the screen or on the virtual keyboard it feels as if you’re actually pressing on that specific spot. It’s tactile, which provides more peace of mind if you’re hearing-impaired. If you’re blind, this makes typing and clicking a lot easier. What’s important is that multitouch provides a non-mouse alternative for people with limited physical use of their fingers or arms. And it’s an assistive technology that’s already built into the systems of mainstream technology, so there’s no adaptation needed once you take your new phone, PC, GPS system, etc., of the box. But multitouch can help, say, a person with arthritis, MS or cerebral palsy who can’t grasp or click a mouse. Touch isn’t an all-in solution, of course. Some people have no use of their forelimbs at all. That’s why the joystick is operated by tongue; a head pointer is operated by the head. But as technology advances we’ll be seeing more interaction and collaboration with our sensory and motor processes. For someone with a disability, any way that we can manipulate content to get what we want is something we’re great at.

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