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Kickstarters Want To Murder The Mouse

Leap Motion has new competition: Haptix, from Ractiv, is the latest gesture-based computer controller to hit the market.

The merits and flaws of the modern computer mouse could be evenly debated. Since it was invented in 1964, it enabled an era of personal computing without necessitating human posture too different from what’s required to sit at a desk and write with pen and paper. On the flipside, it’s the middle man between you and the work you’re creating on the computer. Tablets address this, by letting the user interface directly with applications.

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These are crucial considerations now, because we’re on the brink of a massive change in how we interact with our computers. A year ago, Leap Motion announced the impending arrival of the Leap Motion Controller, a first-of-its-kind gadget promising Minority Report-style capabilities. The devices rolled out this summer, and the overriding consensus is that the Leap is magical!–kind of. It basically operates like a web cam with fancier software that can translate millimeters of movement from individual fingers into commands on the computer’s screen. The promise is thrilling, but the problem is in the learning curve. Unlike swipe-to-scroll, and pinch-to-zoom, Leap is asking us to develop a new kind of hand motion in midair. There’s no tactility–nothing to touch that confirms you completed a task. In short, it’s missing the satisfaction of hitting a button.

A newer tool is the Haptix, a gadget from a two-man operation called Ractiv that’s raising funds on Kickstarter. According to its creators, the Haptix is actually the device that can slay the mouse. That’s because the Haptix allows for multi-touch in addition to 3-D sensors, meaning “it enables it to be a lot more compatible with today’s programs,” says Darren Lim, one of Ractiv’s founders. “Haptix is meant to be something you can clip on your laptop. It’s a permanent accessory whereas a mouse is something you unplug and take on the go.” Whereas Leap operates as an entirely new platform, with its own suite of apps, the Ractiv team crafted Haptix to adapt to our current computer programs.

Tangibly, Haptix differs from Leap by creating the same kind of touch-screen controls we’re used to on tablets, only it can do so anywhere. A keyboard can become a large touch surface, or a tabletop can become a platform for a hand-drawn rendering that transmits itself onscreen, into a creative application. This feature promises more natural motion and less shoulder cramping–so that, if it works, it can create a more comfortable and intuitive user experience. “You’re not looking down with your neck, or raising your arm,” Lim tells Co.Design. “It’s as ergonomic as the mouse or tablet. But your fingers are not obstructing what you see.”

Ractiv’s first partnership highlights what’s unique about its interface. Zack Dennis is the founder of a startup called DexType, that worked with Leap to create keyboard-free typing. He’s now going to work with the Haptix team to integrate a new keyboarding techniques called ASETNIOP. Lim likens the ASETNIOP technique to playing keys on a piano, instead of following the traditional QWERTY layout. This system reacts based on which finger is pressed down, instead of exactly where the finger meets a given surface, and it adapts to hand size and placement, so that when used on a tablet, it doesn’t block the output showing up onscreen. It’s a smart match for the Haptix, because both systems are fundamentally about allowing space between hands and the screen. But Lim is mostly interested in what it says about the possibilities at hand: “It raises an interesting question of how far can we go, how easy can this technology be?”

Like the Leap, it’s a small rectangular piece of hardware that’s easily palmed. It physically differs in that it can clip onto a laptop screen and hit the road–Lim offers the example of riding a bus and being able to seamlessly work or play games. Haptix also skips the infrared technology, enabling high functionality in brightly-lit settings. Haptix currently requires cord connectivity, but Lim says that wireless functionality, as well as television interaction, are in Haptix’s future.

What’s compelling about Haptix’s appearance on the market isn’t just its flexible technology or even the promise of eradicating the mouse–it’s that a burgeoning market is already seeing fragmentation. It’s not just a one-off product, and this new category of products will soon start to shape our hand gestures, behavior, and our computing lingo.

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The Haptix will cost $70, but early backers can snag one for $65. Check out the Haptix Kickstarter campaign here.

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About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.

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