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Microsoft’s Surface Dial is proof your mouse is holding you back

How do you control your computer? For most people, the answer is “a keyboard and mouse.”

In the last 20 years of computing, the biggest innovation in input has been the slow shift from cursor-based pointing devices to touchscreen. Yet even here, many users are reluctant to give up their computer mouse, because they see touchscreens as a less efficient and less accurate method of obtaining very similar results.

But what if it’s the computer mouse that’s holding us back?

Mouse trap

Mice are considered a jack-of-all-trades that can handle just about any task. Billions of people use them, from gamers to scientists. You might think it was built with broad use in mind — but actually, it was designed to solve a very specific problem.

The modern computer mouse is thought to be a jack-of-all-trades – but is it?

The roller ball technology used by the first mice dates to 1946, when British scientist and electrical engineer Ralph Benjamin invented the technique for use with the Royal Navy’s Comprehensive Display System. The CDS was used to predict the future position of aircraft, using a joystick to input and control calculations. Sound awkward? Well, it was.

Benjamin felt he could provide a more elegant input method.

In the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart and Bill English constructed the first prototype of their computer mouse while working at the Standford Research Institute. It used a wheel, rather than a ball, to track movement — but its physical implementation was like today’s mice. When that idea was combined with the roller ball mechanism, the computer mouse was born.

More: A designer’s dream: How Microsoft built the Surface Dial

In his 1962 paper, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Engelbart refers to his proto-mouse as a “pointer,” and that has a greater relevance. At the time, a peripheral that could point at elements on the screen was sorely needed. But today, our needs have become more sophisticated than the basic “point and click.”

Dialing in

Almost everyone, regardless of their familiarity with technology, is expected to know how to operate a computer mouse. Yet, as the history shows, the mouse wasn’t invented to solve every problem. It’s perfect for selecting a point in a two-dimensional area, but modern computers let users do a lot more than that.

Microsoft’s Dial is a great example. Though it’s new, the dial as a concept is not, even in relation to computers. Dials are used extensively in digital music production and performance. Adjusting the frequency or the volume of a track in a composition is better served by a twistable knob; performing the same action with a mouse cursor feels clumsy and inaccurate.

Yet the advantages of a dial stretch beyond the world of audio. Nashville, Tennessee’s Griffin Technology has been selling a peripheral of this kind since 2001. Called the PowerMate, it’s a rotatable knob that connects to your computer via USB. Users have more adopted it as part of various do-it-yourself projects, or as an alternate control method for driving games and space sims.

One size does not fit all

Calvin Chu is a man that knows more than most about introducing a new input peripheral to the computing market. In 2013, he spearheaded a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of a product called Palette Gear, a modular set of physical inputs intended to help every user find a set-up that works for their individual needs. One of these inputs is a dial.

“A lot of our inspiration came from the past,” Chu explained when spoke to Digital Trends. “There have been a lot of previous interfaces that used the rotation paradigm to increase or decrease a certain value, or a certain function — we just thought it was very natural.”

A lot of value can be found in tools made to fit the way you work.

Chu and his team decided to include a dial as one component of Palette Gear because it’s a fundamental feature for certain tasks. As he describes it, the dial is among the “elemental forms of interaction.”

Palette Gear is comprised of three main components; dials, buttons, and sliders. Users can pick and choose as many as they like. “We think the modular aspect is very important,” said Chu. “There’s just a lot of value when the tools and the interface are made to fit the way you work.”

Both the Surface Dial and Palette Gear appeal to users because they offer a different way to interact with a computer. “We think there are a lot of similar philosophies,” said Chu. “I think both Palette and Microsoft, we’re looking to offer these new classes of input, and these new paradigms of interaction. But I think we’re both doing it in different ways. So I don’t think that it’s a competitor — I think it’s actually really great validation that people need better tools.”

Palette and Microsoft are two very different companies, but they’re linked by a common goal of introducing alternative input peripherals. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how Microsoft tackles one of the biggest challenges that Palette has faced in bringing its product to fruition; ensuring that the device plays well with others.

Better tools for the job

“We’ve been spending a lot of time expanding our software integration,” said Chu. “So, working with a lot more apps within video editing and photography.

“It’s always been a challenge for us, because we really care about the overall experience. To a user, you don’t really see who’s responsible or controlling what, so we spent a lot of time making sure that those integrations, and all the functions we had to control, are really well done.”

There’s a reason why previous dial peripherals were relegated to niche use, or adopted by tinkerers like the DIY community; it’s very difficult to ensure that a device like this works with a wide range of hardware and software. Unusual forms of input must take the time to establish custom support for individual pieces of software, or implement a catch-all solution that’s not as finely tuned.

Palette opted for the former, working with a list of companies that includes Adobe, to ensure that its peripherals work perfectly with popular pieces of software. Microsoft certainly has the clout to take a similar approach, assuming the Surface Dial is popular enough to warrant continued support.

The end of “one size fits all”

It’s not easy to introduce an all-new input device.  It’s easier to use a computer mouse for every possible eventuality, and design software around it. Yet as PCs evolve, users seem to be craving new devices that are better at specific tasks, even if they’re not useful in every app.

“I think it should have happened earlier,” said Chu. “It’s a little surprising how really only the audio industry, and maybe some other very high-end professionals, have these dedicated tools that are made for their specific uses. Everybody else — 99 percent of everybody else — uses keyboard shortcuts, and a mouse cursor, and a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Hopefully, the fact that leviathans like Microsoft, and creative upstarts like Palette, are both working on alternatives means we’re headed toward a computing landscape that’s less concerned with that “one-size-fits-all” mentality.