The Mousetrap’s end?

If you’re one of those product designers who believes the humble but all-powerful mouse is restricting your 3D work, take heart, for help – possibly in the shape of a cricket – is on its way. Peter Hall looks into recent innovations from the US to find a

SBHD: If you’re one of those product designers who believes the humble but all-powerful mouse is restricting your 3D work, take heart, for help – possibly in the shape of a cricket – is on its way. Peter Hall looks into recent innovations from the US to find a cricket and some magic clay

The big news in Tinseltown and Silicon Valley this month was the announcement of a merger.

Since mergers are as common as hamburgers in American business these days, you may be forgiven for stifling a yawn. But nestling amid all the excitement in the financial media, on the stock exchange, in the entertainment business and in the computer industries, was an interesting piece of news for product designers. In short, it was the first squeak to indicate that we soon may witness the death of a mouse. Not Mickey Mouse, but that familiar plastic device we use to operate computers.

A few days after the announcement of the merger agreement, between Silicon Graphics (SGI) – the manufacturer of the high-end computer workstations used to create special effects in films like Forrest Gump and Jurassic Park – and two 3D animation software companies, Alias Research and Wavefront Technologies, I spoke on the phone to Alias’s president, Rob Burgess.

Much of the press attention so far had been devoted to the impact this deal would have on the development of all-digital film studios and data exchange standards. But, said Burgess, “We want to give a very positive message for industrial designers and automotive designers. The merger is going to mean more technology, faster. We are going to be able to create better products for their market than we were able to do before on our own.” I asked him what was the priority area for research and development. “The user interface,” he replied. “The mouse will not be the dominant device [for designing on a computer] in the future.”

Despite the fact that you need well over ú10 000 to buy just one Silicon Graphics workstation running Alias software, this set-up is used by thousands of design studios across the world, including Ford’s in-house design team and Boeing’s aeroplane designer, Teague. If, as Burgess, predicted, the proposed new SGI/Alias/Wavefront software development subsidiary manages to release its first landmark interface product before the end of the year, then changes will sweep across design studios at a rapid rate, and – if it’s successful – perhaps eventually filter down to personal computer users. (Though, of course, innovations may equally come from the pc arena, courtesy of Bill Gates and the Microsoft empire, which last year bought out Softimage, the main rival to Alias and Wavefront, for $130m (ú195m).)

Burgess promises that his company’s new method of interfacing with a computer will merge the traditional design methods (clay and foamcore modelling) with the tools of the digital age in a way that “brings more senses into the game”. “The mouse,” he points out, “wasn’t designed with industrial designers in mind.” True enough, the tools of the digital age seem oddly inappropriate to professionals who used to pride themselves on their dexterity. Recently, a marketing executive with Ashlar Vellum, the product design software for the Mac and pc, boasted to me that he could usually tell from looking at a product which 3D design program was used to create it. It seems that in retrospect many product designers had to take a creative step backwards with the early Computer Aided Design software, since its modelling limitations encouraged the design of certain forms and shapes. Foamcore modelling has probably persisted as a favoured medium partly because of these limitations. In fact, any sensible product design history book goes to some lengths to parallel technological developments with creative movements. The organic shapes, dips and pimples of early Nineties product design clearly wouldn’t have been possible in the early part of the century. By the same token, the rise in popularity of the mouse, a two-dimensional drawing device to develop three-dimensional forms, may well have had an greater restricting influence on the products designed since the late Eighties than we imagine.

But what could replace the mouse? Are we shortly to witness the advent of devices like The Cricket, an experimental “interaction tool” designed by New York-based Digital Image Design and Ecco design? Held in mid-air in front of the computer monitor (to which it is connected by two wires) and shaped like a bizarre sci-fi insect monster, it provides tactile feedback to the user via vibrating buttons. Or are product designers about to be confronted with a new kind of magic clay, injected with electronic sensors that record the changes in its form and relay them to the computer? If anyone has any better ideas, do let me know. Better yet, let Silicon Graphics know. They’re the ones who just agreed to pay about ú750m for Alias and Wavefront.

The stakes are high in this game, the rewards are bountiful, and the mousetraps are vicious.

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