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After 50 years of the computer mouse, what does the future hold?

The invention of the computer mouse 50 years ago by engineer Douglas Englebart was really the invention of modern computing as we know it.

The on-screen interfaces we now interact with daily without a second thought; all the thoughtfully laid-out programmes we use to carry out tasks - data sorting, word processing, browsing, drawing, communicating, sharing - exist because the computer mouse gave normal people, not just engineers, direct control over their machines.

When Englebart presented his invention to a crowd of 1,000 in San Fransisco in 1968, he began with this question: “If in your office, you, as an intellectual worker, were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day, and was instantly responsive to every action you have — how much value could you derive from that?”

Life before the computer mouse

At the time of Englebart's presentation, engineers communicated with computers (of which there were few, mainly in universities) using punch cards: paper cards containing holes punched by hand or machine, to represent data. Each card was a line of code that the computer would then process when inserted into a punch card reader. Englebart's proposition that we would one day communicate with computers directly - by moving a cursor around a screen, by typing words, was revolutionary.

It is thanks to the humble mouse that the computer evolved into the technology millions of us now use and rely on every day. For 50 years the mouse has slowly shape-shifted through many different designs. We've had trackball, laser, pen-style designs, vertical mice like our inimitable Penguin and roll-bars to name a few. But with the rise of touch screens, gesture and voice control, is the computer about to move on into the future without its trusty rodent-shaped sidekick?

Will the computer mouse become obsolete?

Many experts believe the days of the computer mouse are numbered. Touch-screen devices like our phones, tablets and some laptops are just the beginning of a shift in the way we interact with computers. Humans and computers are moving closer together. The boundaries that separate us are becoming ever thinner. Computers are being developed now that can read our brainwaves; others that can read our facial expressions and respond accordingly. There is also development of wearable devices that could project interactive computer screens onto any surface - a table, a wall, or a palm, perhaps removing the need for inputting devices entirely.

The mouse hasn't always been as friendly as its quirky name suggests

As incredible an invention as it's been, the mouse hasn't been 100 per cent good for humanity. Some mouse designs, especially the traditional type shaped like a mouse, can force the hand and wrist into unnatural positions which, over time, can lead to musculoskeletal pain. Common problems include:

  • Wrist angled upwards or down (the wrists should be in-line with the forearm when using a mouse).
  • Gripping mouse too tightly, leading to fatigue and pain.
  • Excessive force when clicking - over time, stiff buttons can overwork small muscles.
  • Small, repetitive movements.

Over 30 million working days are lost to musculoskeletal disorders each year in the UK.

The question is: will ditching the mouse eradicate the ergonomic problems associated with it, or will it simply introduce new problems?

Independent ergonomist John Ridd says:

"In my view, for the foreseeable future there will remain some computer tasks that will best be achieved using the mouse, or NKID (non-keyboard-input-device). One problem with touch-screens is that the functional arm reach distance may not be the same as the user’s comfortable vision distance, leading to potential problems for one or the other.

"Mice have been associated with the development of a number of MSDs, but use of touch screens will not remove this risk entirely, and perhaps not at all; the problem may simply move the risk for vulnerable users to a different part of the body.

"Touch-screens come with a wide range of MSD risks that have not as yet been adequately researched, and ergonomics will be essential in the design and layout of the new equipment and workplace to reduce these foreseeable problems, and this is an important point - if the MSD risk is foreseeable and a problem arises, then the employer may be considered to have been negligent if not taking appropriate measures to reduce that risk."

And what about the reception of mouse alternatives? New technology is notoriously challenging to integrate into workplaces without good planning, training and transition periods. John adds:

"The mouse has been at the centre of efficient desk-top working for decades, and workers who have grown up with these will take some time to become comfortable with the new technological options, and cannot reasonably be expected to change from one to the other without an approriate transition period. As ever in ergonomics, it’s about adapting the equipment for the worker rather than forcing the worker to compromise their posture."

John's view that the mouse will still have a market - even with the development of new technology, is shared by David Kurlander, formerly of Microsoft's User Interface and Graphics Research Group, who says:

"The mouse and keyboard won't go away completely as they are an extremely fast and efficient way of interacting with computers, but we are going to see a lot more manipulating and placing of real life things."

For now, the mouse remains one of our most-used tools. For us at Posturite, the most important thing is that we match workers to the right design to limit the risk of MSDs forming. You can view our entire collection of ergonomic mice here.