This year marks the 50th anniversary of the humble computer mouse. The late, great Doug Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute built the first prototype in 1964 and later got a patent for the device in 1970. With the arrival Apple’s Macintosh computer in 1984, the mouse has had a long reign over desktop computer systems for the past three decades. Laptop trackpads and touch-screens may have cut into the mouse’s dominance, but if you use a desktop computer during your day, odds are there’s still a mouse attached to it.
But gripping a mouse for long hours — along with the arm and hand movements needs to pilot the device — can take a toll. If you’re having pain in your hand or arm after a long day riding the rodent, you may be suffering from a repetitive strain injury.
If you can, go to a doctor and get it checked out. If you have no access to medical help, so some research on RSI. You may be able to find exercises and other behavior modifications to help alleviate some of the pain. Also, study up on ergonomics — your chair, your desk and your workspace configuration may be working against you.
If using a mouse makes your hand hurt, there are other, possibly less-stressful tools to get around your desktop. These include:
- Trackballs. Sort of like an upside-down mouse, you spin a plastic ball with your fingers and click with your thumb or another digit. Because your fingers are spinning the cursor, you have fewer overall arm movements and a stable resting spot for your hand.
- Trackpads. A wireless or USB trackpad on your desktop machine could be a gentler alternative to the mouse, as you scroll, point and click by gently tapping the pad. Unlike laptop trackpads, you can position an external trackpad much more ergonomically.
- Pen and tablet. Instead of clutching a chunk of plastic, you hold a special pen and move it across a tablet to move around the screen. Wacom is the big player here. Pen tablets are favored by many artists, photographers and graphics professionals because of the superior degree of control and the natural feel of holding an old-fashioned writing implement. Some tablet also include trackpad-like multitouch shortcuts
- Voice command and dictation. Instead of typing out everything, speak your words. Both Windows (including Windows 8) and Mac OS X have a degree of voice control available for opening programs and moving around the system. Dictation software, either third-party offerings (like Nuance’s line of dictation programs) or built in to the OS (Windows and Mac OS X), can save you a whole bunch of keystrokes too if you can just recite your email or memo.
If you do stick with a regular mouse, check to see if it has programmable buttons. You may be able to set it up so one button-click equals two clicks, and that sort of thing. Keyboard shortcuts you can do with either hand may also help take some of the strain off your mouse arm, so check out the list for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux Mint and Ubuntu Linux.
Who knows, we could be headed for an all voice-activated user interface experience just like in the movie Her. But until then, let’s be careful out there and offer thanks to Doug Engelbart for getting us this far.