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Mouse matters

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Coming in all shapes, sizes and materials, the mouse has moved on significantly from its early wooden, rectangular days It is 32 years since Stanford Research Institute scientist Douglas Englebart invented the mouse. Englebart's 1968 prototype was rectangular and made of wood. Most current designs are like a flattened half egg.Apple recently came out with a smallish circular puck of a mouse that got rather mixed reviews: expensive style over function was the verdict. And size seems to matter.

According to Cornell News at www. news. cornell. edu/releases/Dec99 /mouse. design. ssl. html, several years ago the bigger the mouse the better - or at least as big as the Cornell University research mouse, which was adjustable, over-sized, flatter and had a built-in palm support. However, it has not been seen since.

One undeservedly underwhelming variant on the conventional mouse is the trackball, which is effectively an upside-down mouse whose ball you move with your fingers.

Exotic Giger-esque sculpted variants such as the TrackMan and Marble Mouse are still being made by firms such as Logitech. You wonder how much they have been influenced by the 15-year-old design of the original SpaceBall, a tennis ball-sized/shaped device on a stalk involving lots of internal strain gauges which was used to control your 3D movement through 3D space. Logitech has taken over making SpaceBalls now, and the current versions look rather like the Marble Mouse, only with lots of buttons. The original version was not all that different from the Microsoft EasyBall, a big 95mm yellow ball sitting in a kind of grey soup plate, designed for kids.

The big, relatively recent innovation (apart from scroll wheels and infrared and wireless connections) has been the optical mouse. It was first developed in 1982 by Mouse Systems, using a gridded mouse pad and costing a modest fortune. Today, the gridded pad has gone and the average price has dropped to around £20 - or $20 in the US. Unlike the balled version, you do not get to pull out the ball and scrape off crud from the internal rollers every three months. Something like the gridded pad has resurfaced in the service of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography's underwater mouse (reports North Country Times of California at www. nctimes. com/news/2001/2001 0525/53018. html). You might think this was a mouse in a watertight casing and, up to a point, it is. But water pressure could easily trigger ordinary mouse buttons, making the underwater screen go funny. But however clever the electronics may be, it looks uncannily like an unpleasant metal version of Englebart's wooden box on wheels - except it uses a specially ruled underwater mouse board. Not one for the avant garde office fish tank after all.

On the Internet, mice now come for sale in all shapes and sizes: the flying saucer, very popular this month, animal-shaped mice in the form of frogs and, of course, ladybirds. And for the tired executive there is the Golf MouseDriver. It is shaped like the head of a golf driver. It is a real handful and may well be extremely ergonomic should size actually matter: details are at http: //www.

4gifts4all. com/golf_mouse/golf_mo use. html. Still on the executive front, metal mice have had a recent vogue.

You can get a silver-plated mouse from a Florida e-shop at www.

silverqueen. com/Gifts/sterlinggifts. a sp for $23.50 (£16), which is at the bottom of the price range for silver plating. A sterling silver version goes for $180 (£123) and the 18-carat gold version in a velvet gift box is $1,900 (£1,303).

All current mice need mouse pads - to give the ball a decent grip or provide a consistent surface for the optical version. There is even a mouse pad you clip on your knee for those alfresco computing sessions. But the pad may have had its time. Mice makers are said to be on the verge of releasing optical mice with tiny cameras in them and which do not need mats - at the usual leading-edge prices.

Until we had ADSL installed and the whole phone system went silly, I used to use a mouse phone. It had an earpiece that you plugged in, hoped would stay there and was terrific for conversations longer than a minute or two - and even better for interviews. It is true the cables were a bit messy - but that is what you put up with in the name of progress and convenience. There are also FM radio mice from which you can download favourite hits to your MP3 player, and there are pen mice - with a lumpy bit where the lead would be, an early version of which I have in a box in the cellar.

The mouse phone idea is not dead.

Derbyshire firm Cotswold Computer Supplies does one in blue transparent plastic at around £50, although one review I saw thought it was not very well shaped for everyday use. The more prosaically cream one I used was half the price and is still available at Hamleys. Far more interesting for the minimal desktop is Cotswold's D2K Slim Phone. It is just 6mm thick, around 200mm square, with big flat scallop cut-outs on each side and the corners clipped off. I bought one and rang everybody announcing that I was calling from my mouse mat.

Unaccountably, their responses all involved the word 'sad'. But I had to replace it the next day because, although it was a perfectly good phone, the edge welding came unstuck. The second one had a faulty earpiece/mike socket. I gave up and got my £50 back. Just as well. The factory-gate price in Taiwan is around £10 and discounts are available. But not here. The keypad and various buttons are printed into the blue translucent surface and the 'on' button needs a firm push to avoid accidentally ringing Madagascar as you scroll around.

US firm Almaden is researching emotional-state detection based on the way subjects grasp their mice.

Somehow related to this is the company's BlueEyes research into gaze tracking, MAGIC (or manual acquisition with a gaze-initiated cursor) which deploys pupil-direction detection plus manual manipulation of the mouse. Pupil detection involves two inexpensive infrared time multiplexed light sources. I have not made any of this up. Honest.

One firm which nearly has stuff to sell you is the US firm Naturalpoint.

Its NaturalPoint trackIR Hands Free Mouse is detailed sketchily at www. naturalpoint. com/. This is not a mouse at all but an infrared detector which you stick on the top of your VDU and a dot which you probably stick on the bridge of your specs. You then move the cursor by moving your head up and down.Happily you can revert to standard mouse mode should the dot drop off. This is quite expensive at between $120 (£82) and $437 (£300). The device is capable of stable movement - down to a single pixel, says the blurb. But this begs the question of whether you can get your head to hold the cursor on a single pixel for more than a jiffy. Especially after lunch.

Inventor Engelbart might be interested in the current competition for mouse innovations run by mouse-maker Kye. The 24 successful candidates from the first stage, mostly from Taiwan, are now going to develop their ideas. They include a mouse glove, an all-terrain mouse, a golden finger, a sky light and a coffee mouse. Oh, and an elf mouse. Hold your breath? Maybe not.

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