Stroke your mouse and get in touch with your hard drive

A company in California has developed a new, mouse-style interface that allows users `feel' their software.

The classic Who song "See me, Feel me" could be heard more than once at the Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas last month. A company called Immersion, founded in 1992 by students at Stanford University, unveiled its Feelit Mouse, which empowers all computer users with the ability to feel their software. Immersion believes it will transform the way people engage with their computers.

Imagine feeling each choice of a pull-down menu as a distinct physical snap, or, while sliding over a Web page, touching textures, surfaces, hills, valleys and other sensations. Stretching a line in a drawing application gives a rubber-band-like sensation. The mouse even lets you shape graphical objects by just compressing and stretching their surfaces.

Immersion previously developed technology for joysticks, steering wheels and other gaming peripherals. In this area feedback control devices aren't new. These days flying a virtual airplane comes alive with realistic sensations that represent aerodynamic forces, engine vibrations, turbulence and even enemy gunfire. Driving games let the user feel the roughness of the road and the forces around tight turns. Some of these devices have memory chips and microprocessors built into them.

A couple of years ago a company called SensAble Technology was the first to introduce a haptic device for computers. It looks a bit like a miniature Luxo Lamp with a thimble on the end. When you stick your finger in the thimble, the device will exert small, precise amounts of force. Probably the biggest advantage of SensAble's approach is that it is 3-D. When the computer screen shows a ball sitting in a box, you can move your thimbled finger forward through empty space until you encounter the virtual object.

The machine is expensive - $16,000 and up - and is used only for professional purposes. At the University of North Carolina, scientists have hooked up the machine to an atomic-force microscope that can map a strand of DNA. Scientists can "feel" each atom.

Immersion's Feelit Mouse is the first haptic device aimed at the general PC user. The mouse contains a motor that vibrates. Sometimes it feels as if the device is suddenly surrounded by stiff springs to keep it in its current position. Since the mouse is mounted on a plastic plate, you cannot use your favourite mouse pad.

But is it useful? As with any new mouse, you have to get used to it. You can't move the device as freely as with a traditional mouse. But Immersion points to possible benefits. With the force feedback off, it takes you longer to click on a bunch of dots in a program and then connect them by dragging the cursor from one dot to the next. Without the sense of feel, execution of such tasks is much slower and the visual distraction is much greater.

Normally, you have to move the cursor towards a dot and squint your eyes to ensure it is properly positioned. The feedback tells you that you are on the mark. Personally, I could do without these sensations, but that doesn't mean tactile responses couldn't be useful. Entire classes of software, ranging from graphical desktops to engineering applications, will be positively affected. You can use educational software to learn about gravity or friction. With Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, designers can feel the tension of a new spring design. Blind people will benefit from this mouse, as well.

Deliveries of the mouse will begin next year, and the retail price will be $139.

Similar designs will probably follow. A Norwegian company already offers an input device that looks like a joystick. It thinks that joysticks are more ergonomically sound, because the arm is held in a more natural position. Add feel to it, and you could gleefully explore new worlds.

More information about the Feelit Mouse is available at http:// www.force- feedback.com

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