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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 11 | Dec. 2, 2004

Building a Better Mouse

By Michelle Cook

Consider the computer mouse. Most of us spend hours each day holding one, yet we rarely give a second thought to how it feels or looks.

We can thank Stanford engineer Douglas Engelbart for coming up with the idea, in 1963, for the user-friendly little fellow and its interactive point-and-click feature that revolutionized computer use. But, as the ultimate human / machine interface, forestry professor Philip Evans found the device lacking, and set out to design a better mouse.

The problem, says Evans, director of UBC’s Centre for Advanced Wood Processing, is that the mouse is made of plastic and plastics, while wonderfully versatile, aren’t very tactile.

Wood, on the other hand, begs to be touched. Its grain and surface texture, warmth, resilience and characteristic smell makes it what an interface is supposed to be, compatible with the components or materials it links. Throughout history, wood has been the material of choice for many products, and despite the availability of other more modern, synthetic materials, it is still preferred in many applications -- banisters, pro-league baseball bats, sailboat tillers, canoe paddles just to name a few. Why not the computer mouse too?

Evans did a little digging and was delighted to learn that the first prototype of Engelbart’s groundbreaking device was, in fact, hewed out of wood. Albeit ergonomically challenged by today’s standards, it was a sturdy little block with two metal wheels and the electrical wire “tail” that would soon earn it its name. Evans and colleague Zbigniew Krupowicz set out to update the wood mouse by designing a fully functional ergonomic optical model with great tactile and visual appeal.

Since today’s computer-numerically controlled multi-axis wood processing centres can rapidly machine wood into virtually any shape, they weren’t limited to any particular form.

The result is four mice that look very much like their plastic cousins but are made from teak, ebony, purpleheart, and cocobolo sanded to a super smooth finish. All are fully functional and plug into a USB port.

Evans says the wood models are pleasant and restful to use, and the universal response from everyone who cops a feel is that they want one. But don’t expect to find one of these caress-able little devices in your Christmas stocking. Evans has no plans to mass-produce them and the prototypes are not for sale.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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