Logitech Pushes New Computer Mouse

Monday, August 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FREMONT, Calif. (AP) — Run this computer mouse over an image of a tennis racket and it gives a series of small twitches, as if hitting the racket's hard plastic cords.

Guide the iFeel MouseMan mouse over a picture of an ice cube, and it seems to glide more smoothly across the middle.

A novelty for geeks or a milestone in the evolution of computing?

Logitech, the world's largest maker of computer mice, is betting this new mouse that ``feels'' will change the way we interact with PCs.

The iFeel MouseMan, for sale this fall, looks like most other mice but has a motor inside that relates a sense of texture to the hand guiding it. It's basically a gimmick borrowed from the world of video games.

But to Logitech's executives, this is a mouse that roars. They say it activates a part of human intuition now dormant in computing — and that someday nearly every Web page will have something to touch.

``If you look at how people use their PCs today, it's visual,'' said Wolfgang Hausen, senior vice president and general manager of Logitech's control devices division. ``You look at it. You get sound back from speakers, but that's it. Well, people have other senses.''

Logitech's chief executive, Guerrino De Luca, calls the mouse a ``seed for a revolution in user interface.''

It remains to be seen wether consumers will be so excited.

``I'd score it on the weak side ... but it's certainly interesting and it does have potential,'' said Martin Reynolds, a vice president at Dataquest, a market research firm.

The premise is known as force-feedback technology, which is used in military simulators and medical training devices. In video games, it makes the steering wheel shake when the virtual driver crashes or causes a joystick to shudder when the player fires a machine gun.

Logitech and its biggest competitor, Microsoft, make many of those video game devices.

And Logitech, which claims about 60 percent of the market for computer mice, came out last year with a mouse that employed force-feedback technology. But that was a clunky model that had to remain on its hard plastic console, making it rather impractical.

The sleek new mouse catches up in a big way — it uses optical technology, meaning there is no need for a track ball that registers its movement. It is expected to list at $39 in a standard mouse shape and $59 in a contoured shape for right-handers.

The technology is licensed from Immersion Corp. of San Jose, in which Logitech owns about an 8 percent stake. Immersion builds what gives the mouse its sense of feel — a mass inside that can vibrate very quickly against the plastic outside shell.

The company also designed the software that allows users to customize the sense of touch — icons can be made to feel metallic or rubbery, for example — and software that allows Web designers to incorporate texture into their pages.

Logitech and Immersion hope that once the mouse hits the market, textured Web pages will take off, allowing online shoppers, for example, to get a feel for the material they're buying.

The companies also believe that by incorporating touch, computing will become faster. They contend that when computers only produced text, many people shrugged off the addition of graphics, saying it was unnecessary for word-processing programs or anything else done with the machines.

``You can't underestimate how important the sense of touch is to the basic human experience of engaging,'' said Immersion's chief executive, Louis Rosenberg. ``Once you have it, you want that natural intuitive experience. You don't want to go back.''

Count Microsoft among the skeptics.

The company has decided not to sell force-feedback mice because people find them distracting and not advanced enough to be of much use on the Web, said Mary Starman, a spokeswoman for Microsoft's hardware division.

``It's not something that can be made so precise,'' she said, ``that say, you can feel the difference between the brushed cotton and the unbrushed cotton on your Web site.''


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