FEELit mouse is tactile tool


    Victoria Laney

    Contributing Editor

    Comdex, Las Vegas, November 21

    It sounds like science fiction, but it really works. The new FEELit mouse improves productivity by allowing users to feel any software, said Louis Rosenberg, President of Immersion Corporation.

    “By enabling computers to convey realistic physical sensations to users, the FEELit mouse represents a fundamental milestone in the evolution of human-computer interaction,” he said.

    The FEElit exhibit was one of the most crowded at the Sands Hotel where newer Comdex exhibitors showed innovative products. Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, came by to feel his Windows 95 software. The FEELit mouse allows users to feel Windows commands like “dragging and dropping.”

    Other users felt physical properties such as hard, soft, smooth, rough, heavy, light, fluffy, grainy, dense, slippery, rigid, spongy or brittle. The FEELit mouse works in a networked as well as stand alone environment. Engineers and clients can collaborate on design tasks over the Internet.

    “Our biggest challenge is getting people to use the device so they can see how it works. Once they try it, we don’t need to sell it – it sells itself,” said Ramon Alarcon, hardware partner coordinator.

    “If you are selling a car on-line, you can allow customers to feel the softness of the upholstery, and the shiny finish. If you are a designer, you can use it to create textures, bumps and edges in products,” he said.

    When playing games on the Internet, players can fight over possession of a ball or feel the force of a tackle. Although the mouse can be fun, it was not designed for gaming. It has a serious purpose. Workers have significant performance improvements when using the mouse, he said.

    On the show floor, people took a timed test. They performed a series of tasks at least twice as fast with the FEELit mouse than with a regular mouse.

    “Everyone performs faster. For people with color blindness, hand tremors, or low vision, performance really skyrockets. For some it allows them to use regular windows software for the first time,” he said.

    Early versions of the product were formally tested at the Palo Alto VA Hospital. The results were reported in a peer-reviewed journal. Updated studies will also be published, he said.

    “Force feedback has been around for a long time, but it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our goal has been to bring it at to the public by making it available at about 100 dollars,” Ramon said.

    The FEELit mouse is ideal for the Windows desktop. “With the FEELit mouse, you can feel the pull in a pull-down menu, and the drag in the drag and drop. Word processing becomes easier because you can feel breaks between words lines and pages. It becomes easier to position the cursor,” he said.

    In education, you can teach concepts like gravity, inertia, and other physical principles through experience. Gaming will be a more entertaining experience as you feel the recoil of a rifle or the clank of swords. A force-feedback steering wheel can be used to add realism to racing games. Players can feel the road, he said.

    Basic cursor tasks include grabbing, dragging, dropping, and stretching. Feel is critical for all these. You will be able to grab something without looking at it. You will be able to feel when you’ve grabbed an icon, a button, a word in a spell-checking task, or a pixel in a drawing program. You will be able to feel a link on the Web, he said.

    “Now, people struggle trying to reach the edge of a window. Using the FEELit mouse, you can do it with your eyes closed,” he said.

    The mouse has its own microprocessor. It puts no burden on the computer. It won’t slow down software. The device has small motors inside that create the physical effects, he said.

    The FEELit mouse makes new mouse functions possible. One new function is pressure scrolling. Users will be able to scroll by pushing. Today, scrolling is difficult. Clicking on the slider bar requires looking away from the text.

    “Reading a multi-page document on-line will become easier with the FEELit mouse because you won’t have to look at the slider bar. You can click on a special third button, and push up or down. The harder you push, the faster the page scrolls in that direction. You can feel the page breaks as they go by,” he said.

    Another new function will be pressure clicking. Now, you have to be sure the cursor is aligned on an icon and then click on a mouse button. With the FEELit mouse, you can push against an icon. The force of the pressure will start the function. There is no need to click, he said.

    “Most games require joysticks. The FEELit mouse can transform itself into a joystick. We have been licensing force-feedback joystick technology since 1995. There are about 100 products which enable I-force, the game version of the technology. This mouse works with all those games,” said Mike Levin, who manages arcade and location-based entertainment.

    “Once people try it, they don’t want to go back to using a regular mouse. It is like the transition from black and white to color television. People want computing to be as natural and intuitive as possible. They have a highly evolved sense of touch. We can give them that inside the computer,” he said.

    Right now cursor control devices are just pointers. “The FEELit mouse can be a true interface, which sends and receives information,” said Barry Robbins of Press and Media Relations.

    The FEELit Mouse is USB compliant. It is scheduled to ship in the second half of 1998. The company is announcing it now to encourage software vendors to take advantage of the FEELit Mouse’s capability. They are working on a fingertip model for laptop use. They will license the technology for use in hardware, he said.

    Immersion Corporation was founded in 1992 by three graduate students at Stanford University. It has over 60 patents pending world-wide.

    Software developers who want to add support for the FEELit Mouse to their upcoming applications will be able to download development tools and information from www.force-feeback.com. Immersion Corporation will update the website based on questions and comments received during Comdex.

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