Episode 0031 - Of Mice and Keys

How do we interface with computers? The monitor, mouse and keyboard have been with us a long time, but what do we use and why? And what will we use in the future? When will we get our Direct Neural Interface?!

Podcast: Download OGG (54.8 MB) | Download mp3 (89.8 MB) | Duration: 01:35:41

"If you want to get information into the brain, then putting electrodes right at the brain sites is the way to do it."
-- Christopher James, Professor in neural engineering at the University of Warwick
One Cool Thing
'"Volunteer Duty" Psychology Testing' Original (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Chris Hope.

This episode, a few mishaps leads to a big error. Our hosts unfortunately end up in another universe, and it seems like Joel might be stuck inside the ship's computer. Who's to blame, and could it have been avoided altogether with a better I/O system? What input and output devices do the guys use at their desktop environment? And what lies in the future of digital interaction?

No matter how smart or fast computers are getting, an integral part is to be able to interact with them. The interface, or the layer of communication between a human and a computer, is naturally very important. One of the most effective output devices is usually a screen, whether it's a smartphone or a more traditional computer. When it comes to input we have seen touch based interfaces getting more common over the last few years. But on the traditional computer, the case still often is that you use a mouse and a keyboard. So what does our hosts roll with?

Kenneth has opted for two Samsung SyncMaster 2232BW, that is a 22" screen with a resolution of 1680x1050px. On the input side he is using a Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, which is wireless and split tilted in two parts for easier typing. And lastly, a Logitech M500 Corded Mouse, with a detachable scroll wheel as a nifty feature.

Robin on the other hand is using one large 27" display, that is a Dell Ultrasharp U2711. Apart from the larger resolution of 2560x1440, this display also has a plethora of inputs such as HDMI, DVI, VGA, DisplayPort, composite and component video. When it comes to inputs, he uses a Mad Catz R.A.T. 7 corded mouse and a Trust eLight LED Illuminated Keyboard, which is corded as well. The keyboard is fairly cheap and not particularly fancy apart from the multi-color backlit keys, but the R.A.T. 7 mouse on the other hand looks quite unusual and is extremely customisable to your own hand and liking.

Henrik has a somewhat similar setup to Robin's. He uses a 27" display as well, the Dell Ultrasharp U2713HM. The main difference to Robin's U2711 is that the U2713HM is a bit slimmer, lighter and uses LED backlight instead of CCFL. If we look at the inputs Henrik's mouse of choice is also the Mad Catz R.A.T. 7, and he completes his setup with a generic keyboard called Dell RT7D50.

The pattern that emerge after this insight is that the thing Kenneth cares about the most is the keyboard, which is a more expensive and better designed one than both Robin and Henrik's choices. What Kenneth really like and look for in a new keyboard is the split keyboard design, which feels much nicer and more natural to type on for longer periods of time. Robin explains that the keyboard he went with is good enough for his needs; he wanted a quite slim keyboard, with low-profile keys that aren't noisy, and also a keyboard with backlit keys. Henrik feels that he doesn't really need extra features like customisable keys or backlit keys, in relation to what you pay for it.

When we continue to the topic of mice (and men?) Henrik tries to explain what he likes about the R.A.T. 7 and why he feels the extra features for the price are justified, in comparison to the keyboard. Extra buttons such as back and forward, often located at the thumb position and common on ordinary computer mice, are especially convenient when browsing the web. As is the horizontal scroll wheel, in addition to the more common vertical scroll wheel. He also mentions the sniper button near the thumb, used to quickly lower the DPI or sensitivity of the mouse, as a "nice to have, but not need to have" feature when playing games or precision working in Photoshop, for example. The big bonus according to Henrik is the ability to customise the length, angle and weight of the mouse itself, making it more comfortable. Kenneth mentions the Logitech form factor as something he likes about his M500, and Henrik agrees that Logitech has a great reputation when it comes to computer mice. Kenneth adds that the M500 have an integrated horizontal scroll; when you push the ordinary scroll wheel left or right, it clicks and move sideways on for example a web page.

Displays, then! Robin begins to explain that he used to have a 24" screen with a 1980x1080px resolution, but wanted something bigger both in size and resolution. When Henrik upgraded to the Dell U2713HM, Robin bought his old U2711. When compared to the 2560x1440px resolution that these displays have, Kenneth's 1680x1050px is a lot smaller. On the other hand he uses two of them, which makes it easier to multitask and even possible to work with two different computers in an easy way. For most people it's not possible to fit two 27" monitors, so Henrik's idea is that a smaller secondary screen, between 7-10", would be ideal for chatting, writing or web browsing while doing fullscreen tasks like gaming or watching movies. Kenneth's screens are so old, so it was hard to find a price range for it. Robin's retailed for about 8500SEK, while Henrik's went for about 5500SEK a couple years later. Even though the former has more features, this still is an indication about the fact that computer screens, as most consumer electronics, are getting cheaper.

What about the exciting and scary future? How can we improve our work/play environment, make it more intuitive, ergonomic and avoid computer related illnesses like mouse arm? Kenneth, Robin and Henrik agree that we will continue to use the trusted mouse/keyboard combination on our computers for a foreseeable future. Kenneth is speculating that we might start to switch out our screens for small projectors, as they also get better and easier to use in close-range. Robin also mention the future of augmented and virtual reality, with projects like Google Glass and Oculus Rift getting more common and consumer friendly. Kenneth feels like these are products more aimed at consumers and entertainment, but Henrik poses the idea that this perhaps could replace the screen in situations where a standard desk environment isn't available. And what about holograms that you can touch, a technology in development, could it influence our daily interactions with computers? Will Elon Musk save us all?

Perhaps the change will happen in smaller, less scary steps. Kenneth mentions projects like Mycestro, a clip-on mouse you wear on your finger and use with gestures to control the mouse cursor in a more ergonomic way. He also talks about the keyboard Kinesis Advantage, a keyboard solely focused on ergonomics, where the keys are ordered in two "key wells", which lets you reach all keys without moving your hands sideways.

As a conclusion, Kenneth, Robin and Henrik all agree that this definitely is a subject of opinion. As every human is physically different, have different tastes and likings and use the computer for different tasks, the choice of computer mouse, keyboard and computer screen without a doubt will vary, no matter where the future will take us.

Let us wrap this up!

Send your feedback to the group !aiitr at Identi.ca or mark it with hashtag #aiitr at Twitter, you find me at both Identi.ca and Twitter as @AlltInomIT. Henrik you find at @Warpfuz and Robin at @RobinHarming.

Theme music today by Sirius.
Music is released under Creative Commons BY 2.0 FR.

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