The Magic Mouse Makes You Master The Art Of IllusionismJanuary 6th, 2010

Input Devices, Interaction, Mouse, Multi-Touch Technology

It's fully multi-touch and it looks fancy, the Magic Mouse aims to shift the current mouse paradigm. However, multi-touch technology is not as intuitive as it could seem, it requires knowledge. Should we forget the genuine buttoned mouse and bet on the buttonless approach?

Magic Mouse State-of-the-art

A month ago Apple unveiled the Magic Mouse, the world's first Multi-Touch mouse.

From the bitten apple headquarters affirm that they've reached another milestone by bringing gestures to the desktop with a mouse that's unlike anything ever before. True. As it has become common, Apple brains think differently once again creating a mouse that easily arouses envy among its rodent brothers.
And it's just that this mouse hides some superpowers under its immaculate white surface. First of all it's multi-touch, which means your finger can literally caress screen contents. Secondly, it has laser-tracking technology which turns even a fakir's seat into a soft mousepad. And of course it's wireless which makes remote control possible.

  • Apple Magic Mouse

Despite these features presumably add value to the device, not all do so without requiring user effort. While laser and wireless technologies are transparent to the user, multi-touch surface requires skill and experience.
Are the benefits of this technology enough to be willing to learn it?

From single button to buttonless

The first mouse concept proposed by Douglas C. Engelbart had only one button. Similarly, in 1983 Apple released the Lisa computer, also with a single button mouse as input device.
Then Apple opted for a single button to avoid ambiguities between users, since more than one button could generate doubts about the functionality of each. They wanted something simple and straightforward, with no secret tricks. Apple's original mouse not only looks simple, but it was simple indeed.

  • First computer mouse
  • Apple Macintosh Mouse

Today, Apple is faithful to its principles creating something which looks exceptionally simple. Maybe too simple. So simple that externally gives zero clues about how it works. So simple that apparently becomes unintuitive. So simple that you must be a techno geek to figure out how to use it.
But the Magic Mouse is not as simple as it seems because it hides a big complexity under its smooth shell. The multi-touch surface is ready to recognize a bunch of gestures. Maybe too many, and perhaps too secret. So secret that it forces you to test and error. That's not bad, in the end it's like playing and enjoying the experience. But the problem here is that you could feel like playing on a playground in which there seems to be no rules.

Playing with physics, logics, and vice versa

I'm sure that designing input devices is not an easy thing. In fact, input devices are the artifacts that enable handshaking between users and computers, between physical and logical worlds.
The thing is that a thin line separates the physical world from the logical world, and input devices need to cross this border.
The cornerstone here is how to cross that line in an elegant, and smart way. And I'd say Apple is extremely meticulous at this.

Back again to the 80's, Lisa's mouse was capable of performing logic functions at the level of operating system through abstract solutions implemented at the physical level. I'm talking about the abstract event known as double-click which is a bit hard to imagine offhand but opens a new dimension within the capabilities of the single button.
I'd say something similar is happening today with the Magic Mouse, although pushed to the limit, where buttons seem to have disappeared and double-click has been eclipsed by a wide range of sci-fi gestures.

  • Magic Mouse gestures

Magic Mouse is not an only child

I've previously said the Magic Mouse can be unintuitive, and full of secret tricks to discover. I'd say my statement is true but not at all, because it ignores a critical detail: the context. And give context here means considering the whole range of Apple's multi-touch devices.

Are you familiar with the new Macbook's multi-touch trackpad? Or just think about iPhone's multi-touch screen. Then you'll notice that cool gestures such as scroll, pinch, swipe or rotate are a standard in all three devices.
That's a clear proof of consistency across Apple products. And this consistency is precisely what makes that something looking unintuitive at first glance is actually a coherent solution for the users, at least for those familiar with Apple's white magic.

  • iPhone swipe gesture
  • Macbook pinch gesture

Notice how Apple is going more and more tactile. Why? Well, maybe this is just the natural evolution of the click. Or maybe this is because Apple's visionaries think on a finger powered future, where qwertyness sucks. Or maybe this is just a matter of being compulsively cool, and different.