By Matt Dyke
First published by Campaign magazine (cover date 19 July 2013). It can also be found on the Campaign website.
The mouse will soon no longer be the dominant way to interact with computers, which represents a significant opportunity for brands.
Ask people to name the most influential pioneer of human-centred computing and the chances are they will name Steve Jobs. Those people would likely never have heard of Doug Engelbart before his death on 2 July. Yet it was the inventor of the computer mouse that led to the origins of interactive computing and paved the way for modern greats such as Jobs.
Although Engelbart and his team at the Stanford Research Institute invented the mouse in 1963, it was only when Apple Macintoshes hit store shelves in 1984 that it reached a consumer audience. Since then, the mouse’s "point and click" graphics user interface has remained the way the majority of people use a computer.
It is only recently that we’ve begun to question the future of the mouse. Ubiquitous computing and the proliferation of devices are forcing a rethink in how we interact with computers.As technology unbundles around us, we naturally require more intuitive interaction. Slowly but surely, we’re beginning to strip away hardware barriers to get closer to the experience. Our interactions are becoming less "point and click" and more touch, gesture and speak.
Smartphones and tablets have brought touchscreen to the mainstream, and the impact has been the birth of a variety of user interfaces that don’t require dragging a little arrow across a virtual desktop. No mouse means fewer buttons and more direct interaction with content.
In video-gaming, gesture-based interfaces are already a hit. But, more recently, they have arrived in the latest tablets and phones from Samsung. "Air Gesture" brings another dimension to how you interact, such as hovering your finger to glimpse hidden content.
Although speech-based interfaces are still in their early stages, devices will soon be able to not only recognise what you are saying but carry out complex tasks. Ron Kaplan of Nuance Communications suggests that we will see a transition from the graphical user interface to a more intelligent conversation user interface. The excitement around Google Glass demonstrates just how quickly this transition could happen.
The pace at which people start to welcome these interfaces will be dependent on a number of factors, from the performance of the technology itself to the way it’s integrated into devices. The most important factor, of course, is how users adopt them.
It is becoming clear that there will no longer be one preferred method of computer interaction. We’ll want to switch interfaces depending on the context of what we’re doing, who we’re with and where we are. In many ways, the way we interact with computers will become much closer to how we interact with the analogue world.
These advances represent a real opportunity for brands to create more immersive, natural and intuitive experiences. We can lead the way by creating valuable experiences that get the best out of these new interfaces. However, brands will need to become adept at creating user experiences that don’t just adapt to but blend "point and click" with touch, gesture and speech.
The prognosis for the mouse is that it will long outlive its inventor, but it must share this future with other interfaces that are more… well, human. Engelbart wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, having devoted his working life to inventing ways of thinking about, and realising, richer human-computer interaction. It looks like this future will be a good thing for people and for brands too.