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Is A Smart Thimble The Computer Mouse Of The Future?

A new invention points a magic finger in the direction of the 3-D interfaces of tomorrow.

Although it has gotten us through the last 50 years of computer history, the computer mouse has one big, contemporary design problem: It only works well with 2-D interfaces. That’s fine for a conventional desktop operating system, such as Windows or the Mac OS, but for the 3-D interfaces of the future, we’re going to have to leave the mouse behind.

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Anh Nguyen and Amy Banic think they know what will take its place. The duo, students at the University of Washington, has invented an intelligent thimble that lets you interact directly with cyberspace in all three dimensions.


In its current form, Nguyen and Banic’s thimble–called the 3DTouch–is a relatively crude combination of accelerometers, magnetometers, and gyroscopes. Worn on the tip of the finger, these sensors track the digit’s movements and then pipe them to a connected Arduino controller. As it turns out, it’s an effective way of controlling a 3-D computer interface. Because it can track a finger’s position in space, the 3DTouch lets you interact with on-screen objects simply by poking, prodding, spinning, or flicking those objects.

Scores of designers have tackled this problem already–and sometimes the results have been pathbreaking. There’s Kinect, Leap Motion, the Oculus Rift, the SpaceTop, and the admittedly oddball InFORM.

But the 3DTouch has a big advantage: price. While these other designs depend on technology that can cost anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, the 3DTouch relies upon sensors that cost pennies on the dollar. Even better, the thimble works just fine on today’s computers.

That might be enough to give the 3DTouch the edge over its more technologically advanced competitors. After all, what has ultimately given the computer mouse its edge for the last half a century is its simplicity and affordability. A computer mouse, after all, is just a rubber ball rolling around inside a plastic case, the movement of which triggers sensors.

That’s a recipe for success that, if it ever hits the market, the 3DTouch could potentially follow. It might switch out the sensors, and replace the rubber ball for a fingertip, but it’s the very familiarity of the 3DTouch that could ultimately make it as timeless a method of interacting with the computers of tomorrow as the mouse has been at controlling the interfaces of the past.

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(H/T MIT Technology Review)

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the 3DTouch was created by students at the University of Washington.

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