Gary Gordon – Fast 50 2003


Gary Gordon hated his mouse. It got dirty. It got stuck. So he built a better one–creating the sensor behind the first optical mouse. Now all optical mice use Agilent’s innovation, making the mechanical mouse seem more like an endangered species. This past December, Agilent announced that it had shipped its 100 millionth optical-mouse sensor since the release of its first one in 1999. What’s Gordon working on now? A “flying mouse” that can sense where a gestural controller is pointing.


Gary Gordon
Agilent Labs fellow, Agilent Technologies
Palo Alto, CA


Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
At Agilent Laboratories, we’re inventing tomorrow today by innovating new technologies by and finding ways to use existing technologies for new purposes. Successful innovation can be traced as much to curiosity, as to education. That’s how we invented the optical mouse. Prior to the invention of the optical mouse, most loathed their computer mice. Mechanical mice get dirty quickly and have to be cleaned frequently. Short of failing outright, dirty mechanical mice insidiously start to skip, aggravating even the most patient user. As I repeatedly banged mine on the desk and cleaned it, I couldn’t help thinking about alternatives. One recurring thought was to use the optical navigation technology pioneered by what is now Agilent Laboratories (Agilent Technologies central research organization), but it seemed unlikely it would work on our monochromatic and seemingly featureless desktops.

What was your moment of truth?
Although many individuals helped bring the optical navigation to market, my breakthrough came when I discovered that our common putty-colored desktops are micro-textured. When lit from the side and magnified, their features stand out as vividly as hills do at sunset. The optical mouse captures 1,500 images of these “hills” per second and tracks motion by measuring the movement from the previous position. Thus, an optical mouse navigates a desktop or other surface by taking 1,500 tiny photographs every second and then calculating motion by comparing successive images of the surface. Light and imaging replace the ball, the roller and the wheels.

What were the results?
Today, all optical mice use Agilent’s optical navigation technology, and in just three years since its introduction, Agilent has shipped over 100 million of these sensors. It seems only a matter of time before all mice are optical mice, making the mechanical mouse look more and more like an endangered species. Optical mice represent the vast majority of retail mouse sales, and growing numbers of sales in the cost-sensitive OEM mouse market. They are now one of the fastest-growing-ever new computer technologies. Users love them, and many find that the tense grips and subsequent mouse induced repetitive stress injury (RSI) are now things of the past. Optical navigation is a powerful new technology, perfectly timed for the mushrooming numbers of screens and cursors in our everyday world. I envision button mice on web-enabled cell phones that sense our fingers sliding across a nub. I also envision future entertainment centers free of multiple-controller festooned coffee tables. These multiple controllers will be replaced by “flying mice” that sense where a gestural controller is pointed. Finally, because Agilent’s optical sensors can be tinier than a sugar cube, a mouse doesn’t need to be the size and shape of a bar of soap. I envision miniature mice for laptop computers, and other radically new shapes that are much more comfortable and that prevent RSI.

What’s your parting tip?
Take yourself on mental excursions to the future. Study how people live, work and spend their leisure time. Look for what’s missing; you may find you can invent it today.