Patrick Baudisch is one of those human interface experts that they lock away in the dungeons of Microsoft Research. He has a doctorate in computer science from Darmstadt University in Germany. He worked in research on interactive systems at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Five years ago, he joined Microsoft to do research on mobile interaction. I caught up with him at the Computer Human Interface conference in San Jose last month. One of his interesting projects is something that shows that Microsoft has the technology in hand to compete with the Nintendo Wii’s controller, if it really wants to do so. It’s a little like the ThinkOptics device I wrote about a few weeks ago.
Baudisch calls his demo “Soap.” That’s because it’s a mouse without wires that you can use in three dimensions, just like you’re holding a bar of soap. His demo at the conference showed how you could hold the wireless mouse to play a game of Unreal Tournament 2004. About three years ago, he started teaching at the University of Washington. Lately, he has been interested in the topic of visual design.
Just to be clear, this is not a formal answer to the Wii. Peter Moore said in an interview with me that Microsoft plans to answer the “approachability of the Wii” in the next three to six months with a combination of both software and other things. Moore, corporate vice president in charge of games, left the rest vague. Clearly, he wasn’t talking about Soap itself.
Baudisch notes the mouse has a pretty ergonomic design. He says it allows you to rest your hand on a table. It gives highly accurate input with the mouse. “That was a key element in designing Soap,” he said. “I wanted to maintain these properties as I removed the mouse from the desktop into mid-air.”
He built the demo in a weekend for an internal demo expo, using about $35 worth of materials. About $20 for the optical mouse, some plastic casings, and other stuff. He isn’t a fan of violent video games, but he needed a way to demonstrate that Soap can be accurate and fast at the same time, just like an optical mouse. He wanted it to be comfortable to use over an extended amount of time.
The idea itself for Soap is just a few months old. The only thing it has in common with the Wii is that you can move around the room with them. “You normally adapt your environment for the mouse,” he said. “You can walk around the room with Soap. That’s the only similarity. Soap is designed not to respond to motion, while the Wii does. You have an accelerometer in the Wii that detects motion. Soap, by contrast, allows you to emulate mouse motion in mid-air, controlling a mouse and a mouse pad with one hand.”
It only monitors the motion between the core of the mouse and its hull. The communication is wireless via Bluetooth or something else. It could be combined with accelerometers and sensors that measure location to deliver eight degrees of freedom, he says.
“It’s much much more accurate than the Wii,” he said. “The beauty of the Wii is that you have casual games. You throw up the ball and hit it. It’s not about aiming. But you wouldn’t want to use the Wii to control a Media Center PC or click on your email. Accelerometers are very low bandwidth. They encourage physical activity. But this can be more accurate than the Wii.”
Baudisch says there are a whole range of mid-air devices. But he says the beauty of the Wii is how it is integrated with the console. But it trades off motion sensing for accuracy of pointing. Soap is a general-purpose pointing device, almost more like a remote-control than a game controller. But Baudisch emphasizes that he is only doing research, not a full-fledged product design. Somebody else could take the idea and integrate it into other technologies.
Baudisch says he did get some feedback from the Xbox division about the Soap product. He says it stimulated some discussion. He has also talked to the Microsoft hardware division, which makes mice and other accessories.
Soap is just one of the topics that Baudisch is interested in. He says he’s been studying a topic dubbed “escalation.” And that means that in the future, people will use the “most available device.” You interact with your phone as it sends a message to you via vibration. If that fails, you glance at the screen. If that doesn’t do the trick, you use a laptop or a computer. You move toward more complex interaction styles as long as the lesser devices don’t satisfy your need.
“Most of our interaction with devices are actually very simple,” he says. “We should interact in a simple way with them. When that fails, then you use something more complicated. This way, we develop an interactive computing environment that adapts to our needs.”