by Anton Shilov
11/30/2010 | 10:52 PM
Nowadays computer users utilize a number of pointing devices, including mice, trackballs, touch-pads and pointing sticks. All of those devices have been evolving for many years and in our time each of them is pretty much tailored for particular usage model determined by applications that are utilized by their owners. For example, trackballs are used by designers, mice with loads of programmable buttons and with ability to regulate weight are used by gamers.
It is not surprising that there are not only a lot of types of pointing devices, but they all are somehow specialized: personal computers are getting increasingly more popular and from universal device they transform into special-purpose products. But while there are mainstream users with typical demands, there are also users with special demands. For example, there are keyboards with integrated trackballs and Apple recently released a touch-pad for desktop computers.
But what about ability to use a mouse during an interactive presentation on stage without any surface? Maybe some PC games will get even more exciting once controlled using a motion-sensing device? The company called Gyration recently released a family of mice with integrated motion-sensing technology. Today we are taking a look at Gyration Air Mouse Elite, the company's flagship model designed for office users.
But before checking out the mouse that can sense motions and still work on various surfaces, let's quickly overview the history of computer mice in general and try to guess whether motion-sensing can become an important feature of pointing devices.
Nobody clearly knows, who invented the mouse. One of the concepts was developed by Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute back in the early sixties. The Engelbart's mouse utilized two wheels located perpendicular to each other. The device could naturally move either horizontally or vertically and probably was not a thing that was comfortable to use. Another concept was invented by the company called Telefunken, which actually used a ball instead of two wheels. The company based in Germany shipped its mouse with its computers eventually. But the very early mice did not become mass products simply because there were not a lot of personal computers with graphics user interfaces (GUI).
Computer mice as we know them started to emerge with PCs made by Apple and Xerox, which had GUI. Those pointing devices used a ball coupled with two wheels and two sensors. As the ball rolled, the wheels also did and sensors could detect the direction and speed of rolling using infrared beams, then a special chip converted that information into X and Y vectors. The mechanical mice were inexpensive and easy to manufacture and given that display resolutions were not high, those products survived the eighties and the nineties.
Xerox Alto mouse. Image by Digibarn web-site.
But mechanical mice did not behave well in case of high resolutions, they also continuously collected dirt from the surface and had a number of other drawbacks. As a result, the optical mouse was born. In fact, although the first prototypes of optical mice were shown back in the eighties, they were expensive to manufacture and only worked on certain surfaces. The first commercial optical mice from companies like Logitech and Microsoft emerged in early 2000s.
Optical mice use LED image sensors that detect motions based on offset of the surface's texture from the previous position. The sensors "check" the offsets for over a thousand of times per second, thus, they can detect even a tiny move. Naturally, the higher resolution the sensor can scan, the more sensitive mouse is. Usually, manufacturers of mice use dots per inch (DPI) measure of spatial dot density to mark mice with higher or lower LED sensitivity. While optical mice were generally much better than mechanical mice, they did not work well on all types of surfaces. Laser mice generally fixed the issue and the latest generation laser mice can even work on glass surface.
Throughout its evolution, mice not only obtained scrolling wheels, but they also got programmable buttons, abilities to regulate weighs and many other features that could not be imagined just fifteen years ago.
But the evolution of the mouse does not stop on new sensors or lasers. Apple installed a multi-touch surface onto its Magic mouse and companies like Gyration and Logitech installed gyrascopes into their models to enable motion sensing. But let's think, do we really need motion-sensing mice?
Although motion-sensing mice sound weird, they make a lot of sense when it is needed to use them without any table. There are a lot of such situations, in fact: during presentations to show functionality of software that requires mouse control, in the living room to control a media center PC, in case of multi-display installations where it can be tough to efficiently control something, and so on.
Considering the fact that gyroscopes and accelerometers are pretty inexpensive these days, mice aimed at aforementioned usage models may pretty easily obtain them. In fact, the most important thing about such devices is development of proper motion-sensing software and processing technologies, including drivers for major operating systems as well as hardware-based methods to improve accuracy, cancel tremors, recognize gestures and so on. Gyroscopes, microcontrollers, optical sensors and other components are available on open market and can be programmed appropriately, there is no need to develop actual hardware.
As people get used to motion sensing controllers of all three major game consoles, gyroscopes inside smartphones, tablets and other devices, they may start to demand similar functionality from other peripherals, including mice, remote controls for TVs and players as well as other gadgets.
If the end users show solid demand towards mice with motion sensing, then gyroscopes inside pointing devices will quickly cease to be a luxury, but simply one of the features; programmable buttons and scrolling wheels were additional options at first that cost additional money, but eventually became default features even on the least expensive mice. Perhaps, gyroscopes are not ideal for an average user these days, but children, who are used to Wiimote, the first mass motion-sensing controller released, should find motion-sensing mice pretty comfortable.
Although Gyration brand is not new, it is little known on the market of computer peripherals. Therefore, we decided to investigate a little more about the company.
The Gyration Air Mouse Elite is produced by the company called Movea. Movea SA, a spin-off from the French research institute CEA-Léti, commercializes motion-based solutions for the health care and sports markets; the firm acquired Gyration several years ago in order to obtain a consumer electronics branch that would sell devices based on technologies developed by Movea.
Movea company is the inventor and patent holder of a motion-sensing technology for in-air navigation and cursor control on a television screen or monitor. According to the company, its MotionIC chips and chipsets power computer peripherals, remote controls for IPTV, equipment and accessories for sports and fitness, as well as physical rehabilitation monitoring solutions. The company does not develop special-purpose chips, but rather solutions for various motion-sensing applications. As a result, the firm may offer its own chips or a programmed microcontroller for different solutions and different configurations of sensors, including 2G (two gyroscopes), 3A/2G (three accelerometers + two gyroscopes), 3A/3M (three accelerometers + three) or 3A/3G/3M. Naturally, Movea can provide its customers or partners software, firmware and other results of CEA-Leti institute development efforts.
CEA-Leti started to develop micro electromechanical systems (MEMS), including accelerometers and weight sensors back in the eighties and was the first institute to patent the silicon accelerometer. Movea was spun off in 2007 and acquired Gyration in early 2008.
Gyration was founded in Saratoga, California in 1989 to develop gyroscope sensor technology for computer and TV interfaces. In 1991, the company introduced the world’s first miniature optical spin gyroscope and received its first U.S. patent award in 1992 for the gyro shaft encoder. Since then, Gyration products and technologies have been revolutionizing the industry with a comprehensive line of next-generation user interface devices and cutting edge proprietary gyroscope technology.
The company claims that Gyration developed the first motion sensing Nintendo game controller prototype in 2001 and developed much of the interaction concepts between motion controllers and game play.
All-in-all, together Gyration and Movea represent a strong team of motion sensor specialists that have worked in this industry for years and who have vision for both expansion of the market as well as are experienced in creating various hardware with motion-sensing capabilities.
Gyration presently has four motion-sensing mice it is lineup: the Air Mouse, Air Mouse Go Plus, Air Mouse Elite and Go Pro Air Mouse. All the mice are aimed at different types of customers and usage models: the Go Plus and Go Pro are designed mostly for presenters and have appropriate design, whereas the Air Mouse and the Elite are aimed at consumers, living rooms and so on.
Although the mice have different shape and design, they are based on similar hardware and feature the company's MotionSense (aka SmartMotion) motion-sensing technology that is built around an embedded gyroscope, a 3-axis accelerometer and a Texas Instruments MSP430-series microcontroller with embedded motion-sensing firmware.
The Gyration Air Mouse Elite comes in light cardboard box with rather strict design. The packaging looks solid and stylish and brings impression of a business-oriented gadget. The device is indeed not aimed at gamers, even though this does not mean that the Air Mouse Elite cannot be used in games at all. The package is sealed using a piece of plastic and it is impossible to evaluate the shape and size of the mouse to ensure that they are comfortable.
Inside the box are the mouse itself, a small receiver for USB port, cradle for charging, a USB cable for cradle and a DVD with the company's MotionTools software. Quite naturally, the bundle does not include anything extra, which is explainable: mice do not come with a lot of additional software like graphics cards or mainboards.
Interestingly, but in order to unify charging mechanisms for different parts of the world, Gyration decided not to include a charging adapter and force users to charge their mice cradle and USB port. While the decision is logical, it may be a bad news for owners of notebooks with limited amount of free USB ports as the mouse will require two of them: one for charging and another for RF receiver.
In overall, Gyration Air Mouse Elite is a nicely packaged product that has a bundle which allows it to work right out of the box.
Despite of being pretty innovative, the Gyration Air Mouse Elite is not a rival for high-end mice by companies like Logitech or Microsoft. In fact, specifications of the mouse are pretty ordinary:
The Air Mouse Elite is a typical mouse, if not consider motion-sensitivity. The device is definitely not positioned for hardcore gamers, designers and other people requiring maximum precision.
Gyration Air Mouse Elite is made of shiny "piano black" plastic with shiny silver insertions. This definitely makes mouse look stylishly on pictures, but, the truth to be told, this is one of the worst materials for both mice and keyboards. After an hour of working, the piano black finish of the Elite mouse will be covered with fingerprints and after a day or two buttons will simply be greasy.
Fortunately, Gyration used rubberized plastic - which Logitech calls "DryGrip" - on the sides of the mouse, therefore, the device does not slide during the usage and even during playing video games the mouse behaves better than typical low-cost mice. In addition, the mouse is well built, plastic does not flex and the parts are not slack.
In order to maximize convenience of both left-handed and right-handed users, Gyration made a completely symmetrical mouse. While this is the approach that all the mouse makers use for inexpensive mice, it is not the best when it comes to the Air Mouse Elite. The mouse has three programmable buttons, which the company had to locate on top of the device. This was done in order to make them accessible when the mouse is held in the air but, as a consequence, they become totally useless when using the manipulator of the table top as they are covered by the palm of user's hand.
The central round button on top of the mouse enables user to make a gesture that can be recognized by Motion Tools software. For example, a right-swipe gesture may launch Windows Media Player, whereas south swipe gesture can switch off the volume. The three other buttons can be programmed separately for different programs. Another button is located on the lower side of the mouse, in fact, in a special pit. Double-clicking the button activates/deactivates motion-sensing mode and thus allows the mouse to operate in the air.
Interestingly, but the pointing device also has a photo-electric cell located on the front of its bottom to determine immediately that the device is placed on the solid surface and that the in-air mode should be deactivated. The solution works robustly, but it naturally glitches in dark rooms.
In short, Air Mouse Elite seems to be a decent average mouse made of not-the-ideal "piano black" plastic and that has a shape suitable for both right- and left-handed users. Unfortunately, the mouse is pretty narrow, which will make its usage uncomfortable for people with hands slightly bigger than average.
Motion Tools software suite is definitely among the bright sides of Gyration Air Mouse Elite and other devices from the manufacturer. In fact, this suite is among the most intuitive and easy-to-use programs of this kind.
The software package allows to bin media buttons of the Air Mouse Elite as well as pre-define gestures for various actions. Both buttons and gestures can be programmed separately for general applications, Internet browser, media player and presentations. Besides, different profiles can be saved, which gives rather ultimate abilities to customize usage of the mouse in different cases.
Among the useful things that the Motion Tools can do are Zoom feature, Spotlight feature that lets attract attention to a particular feature of a presentation as well as some other useful things particularly tailored for teachers, presenters and other people, who need to use the Air Mouse Elite in public and with maximum effect.
One of the things that are not particularly good about Motion Tools is that the software does not allow to tune the speed of pointer, wheel as well as motion-sensing. Instead, the program opens up Windows' Mouse Properties that cannot boast with a broad amount of adjustments.
Although Motion Tools automatically detects type of current usage model (whether the owner is using Internet browser, media player or is making a presentation) and redefines actions of media buttons and gestures appropriately, it does not allow to create profiles for particular applications with strictly set deeds. For example, it is impossible to create a mode for gaming and bin media keys to certain actions in a title. Fortunately, the Motion Tools still knows the difference between browsers and media players, which allows to define dissimilar actions in different programs.
In general, Motion Tools seems to be pretty intuitive software for programming buttons or gestures for certain usage scenarios only. However, the suite lacks precise customization features that are available in case of similar programs from rival manufacturers.
The overall impressions about the Gyration Air Mouse Elite are pretty positive. Despite of not being really ergonomic, it is okay for occasional use. From time to time the mouse will slip because of the glossy surface, which is why the mouse should be held stronger than typical mice. One can get used to it pretty easily.
In office applications the Air Mouse Elite behaves well even with 1920x1200 screen resolution, which means that the laser is rather precise. One of the issues with the precision of the laser is that it simply loves new mouse pads. In video games the shape of the controller plays a negative role, but the truth is that this is not a mouse for hardcore gaming, but rather for a teacher, presenter, sales person or multimedia consumer.
The motion sensor of the Air Mouse Elite works very well not only in office or multimedia applications, but also in games. Although Gyration offers simplistic casual games on its web-site designed specifically for Air Mouse, your truly attempted to play Left 4 Dead using motion-sensing controller without regrets. Obviously, it is not easy to shoot opponents using a controller that you are not used to, but who said that it is easy to hold an automatic gun in your hands for an hour or so without prior training?
The Gyration Air Mouse Elite may not be the best solution for every day usage for gaming or office work. It is aimed at those, who give presentations often and do need a motion-sensing tool that be universal enough to act as a mouse. For a device that should do two jobs, the Air Mouse Elite is good enough.
Controlling personal computer using only motion-sensing controller is a lot of fun, but this may not be suitable for everyday use. Firstly, the Air Mouse Elite does not have the best shape for proper in-air double-clicking. Secondly, it is not easy to click on a small link on a high-resolution screen while holding the mouse in the air. Finally, controlling PC using an air mouse is considerably slower at present than using traditional mouse.
To sum up, the Gyration Air Mouse Elite is one size fits all with exclusive motion sensing. It does not have a truly ergonomic shape, it cannot boast with ultra high precision laser and it does not come with the best possible software. But the main thing about this mouse is that it senses motions and at present this capability is unique. Those, who need this feature for their will likely buy the device anyway and will find it pretty useful due to its universality.