SAN JOSE, Calif. – Swipe, swipe, pinch-zoom. Fifth-grader Josephine Nguyen is researching the definition of an adverb on her iPad and her fingers are flying across the screen. Her 20 classmates are hunched over their own tablets doing the same.
Conspicuously absent from this modern scene of high-tech learning: a mouse.
Nguyen, who is 10, said she has used one before – once – but the clunky desktop computer/monitor/keyboard/mouse setup was too much for her.
It was slow, she recalled, and there were too many pieces.
Gilbert Vasquez, 6, is also baffled by the idea of an external pointing device named after a rodent.
I don’t know what that is, he said with a shrug.
Nguyen and Vasquez, who attend public schools, are part of the first generation growing up with a computer interface that is vastly different from the one the world has gotten used to since the dawn of the personal-computer era in the 1980s.
This fall, for the first time, sales of iPads are cannibalizing sales of PCs in schools, according to Charles Wolf, an analyst for the investment research firm Needham & Co. And a growing number of even more sophisticated technologies for communicating with your computer - such as the Leap Motion boxes and Sony Vaio laptops that read hand motions, as well as voice recognition services such as Apple’s Siri – are beginning to make headway in the commercial market.
John Underkoffler, a former MIT researcher who was the adviser for the high-tech wizardry that Tom Cruise used in Minority Report, says that the transition is inevitable and that it will happen in as soon as a few years.
Underkoffler, chief scientist for Oblong, a Los Angeles-based company that has created a gesture-controlled interface for computer systems, said that for decades the mouse was the primary bridge to the virtual world – and that it was not always optimal.
Human hands and voice, if you use them in the digital world in the same way as the physical world, are incredibly expressive, he said. If you let the plastic chunk that is a mouse drop away, you will be able to transmit information between you and machines in a very different, high-bandwidth way.
This type of thinking is turning industrial product design on its head. Instead of focusing on a single device to access technology, innovators are expanding their horizons to gizmos that respond to body motions, the voice, fingers, eyes and even thoughts. Some devices can be accessed by multiple people at the same time.
And the mouse may end up as a relic in a museum.
The first computer mouse, built at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., by Douglas Englebart and Bill English in 1963, was just a block of wood fashioned with two wheels. It was one of a number of interfaces the team experimented with. There were also foot pedals, head-pointing devices and knee-mounted joysticks.
But the mouse proved to be the fastest and most accurate, and the device became a mainstream phenomenon.
Englebart’s daughter, Christina, a cultural anthropologist, said that her father was able to predict many trends in technology over the years, but she said the one thing he has been surprised about is that the mouse has lasted as long as it has.
He never assumed the mouse would be it, said the younger Englebart, who wrote her father’s biography. He always figured there would be newer ways of exploring a computer.
She was 8 years old when her father invented the mouse. Now 57, she says she is finally seeing glimpses of the next stage of computing with the surging popularity of the iPad. These days her two children, 20 and 23, do not use a mouse anymore.
San Antonio and LUCHA elementary schools in eastern San Jose, just 17 miles south of where Englebart conducted his research, have integrated iPod Touches and iPads into the curriculum for all 700 students.
Most children here have never seen a computer mouse, said Hannah Tenpas, 24, a kindergarten teacher at San Antonio.