Joysticks quickly moved out of airplanes and alongside radar and sonar displays during WWII. Immediately after the war, in 1946, the first display-specific input was invented. Ralph Benjamin, an engineer in the Royal Navy, conceived of the rollerball as an alternative to the existing joystick inputs: The elegant ball-tracker stands by his aircraft direction display. He has one ball, which he holds in his hand, but his joystick has withered away. The indication seems to be that the rollerball could be held in the hand rather than set on a desk. However, the reality of manufacturing in 1946 meant that the original roller was a full-sized bowling ball. Unsurprisingly, the unwieldy, 10-pound rollerball did not replace the joystick.
This leads us to the five rules of computer input popularity. To take off, inputs must have the following characteristics:
- Have software that makes use of it
- Have an acceptable user error rate
The last can be amortized by good software design that allows for nondestructive actions, but beware: after a certain point, even benign errors can be annoying. Autocorrect on touchscreens is a great example of user error often overtaking software capabilities.
Even though the rollerball mouse wouldnt reach ubiquity until 1984 with the rise of the personal computer, many other types of inputs that were used with computers moved out of the military through the mid-1950s and into the private sector: joysticks, buttons and toggles, and, of course, the keyboard.
It might be surprising to learn that styluses predated the mouse. The light pen, or gun, created by SAGE in 1955, was an optical stylus that was timed to CRT refresh cycles and could be used to interact directly on monitors. Another mouse-like option, Data Equipment Companys Grafacon, resembled a block on a pivot that could be swung around to move the cursor. There was even work done on voice commands as early as 1952 with Bell Labs Audrey system, though it recognized only 10 words.
By 1963, the first graphics software existed that allowed users to draw on MIT Lincoln Laboratorys TX-2s monitor, Sketchpad, created by Ivan Sutherland at MIT. GM and IBM had a similar joint venture, the Design Augmented by Computer, or DAC-1, which used a capacitance screen with a metal pencil, insteadfaster than the light pen, which required waiting for the CRT to refresh.
Unfortunately, in both the light pen and metal pencil case, the displays were upright and thus the user had to hold up their arm for inputwhat became known as the infamous gorilla arm. Great workout, but bad ergonomics. The RAND corporation had noticed this problem and had been working on a tablet-and-stylus solution for years, but it wasnt cheap: in 1964, the RAND stylusconfusingly, later also marketed as the Grafaconcost around $18,000 (roughly $150,000 in 2018 dollars). It was years before the tablet-and-stylus combination would take off, well after the mouse and graphical user interface (GUI) system had been popularized.
In 1965, Eric Johnson, of the Royal Radar Establishment, published a paper on capacitive touchscreen devices and spent the next few years writing more clear use cases on the topic. It was picked up by researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), who created a working version by 1973.
By 1968, Doug Engelbart was ready to show the work that his lab, the Augmentation Research Center, had been doing at Stanford Research Institute since 1963. In a hall under San Franciscos Civic Center, he demonstrated his teams oNLine System (NLS) with a host of features now standard in modern computing: version control, networking, videoconferencing, multimedia emails, multiple windows, and working mouse integration, among many others. Although the NLS also required a chord keyboard and conventional keyboard for input, the mouse is now often mentioned as one of the key innovations. In fact, the NLS mouse ranked similarly useable to the light pen or ARCs proprietary knee input system in Engelbarts teams own research. Nor was it unique: German radio and TV manufacturer, Telefunken, released a mouse with its RKS 100-86, the Rollkugel, which was actually in commercial production the year Engelbart announced his prototype.
However, Engelbart certainly popularized the notion of the asymmetric freeform computer input. The actual designer of the mouse at ARC, Bill English, also pointed out one of the truths of digital modalities at the conclusion of his 1967 paper, Display-Selection Techniques for Text Manipulation:
[I]t seems unrealistic to expect a flat statement that one device is better than another. The details of the usage system in which the device is to be embedded make too much difference.
No matter how good the hardware is, the most important aspect is how the software interprets the hardware input and normalizes for user intent.Note
For more on how software design can affect user perception of inputs, I highly recommend the book Game Feel: A Game Designers Guide to Virtual Sensation by Steve Swink (Morgan Kaufmann Game Design Books, 2008). Because each game has its own world and own system, the feel of the inputs can be rethought. There is less wiggle room for innovation in standard computer operating systems, which must feel familiar by default to avoid cognitive overload.
Another aspect of technology advances worth noting from the 1960s was the rise of science fiction, and therefore computing, in popular culture. TV shows like Star Trek (19661969) portrayed the use of voice commands, telepresence, smart watches, and miniature computers. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) showed a small personal computing device that looks remarkably similar to the iPads of today as well as voice commands, video calls, and, of course, a very famous artificial intelligence. The animated cartoon, The Jetsons (19621963), had smart watches, as well as driverless cars and robotic assistance. Although the technology wasnt common or even available, people were being acclimated to the idea that computers would be small, lightweight, versatile, and have uses far beyond text input or calculations.
The 1970s was the decade just before personal computing. Home game consoles began being commercially produced, and arcades took off. Computers were increasingly affordable; available at top universities, and more common in commercial spaces. Joysticks, buttons, and toggles easily made the jump to video game inputs and began their own, separate trajectory as game controllers. Xerox Corporations famous Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, began work on an integrated mouse and GUI computer work system called the Alto. The Alto and its successor, the Star, were highly influential for the first wave of personal computers manufactured by Apple, Microsoft, Commodore, Dell, Atari, and others in the early to mid-1980s. PARC also created a prototype of Alan Kays 1968 KiddiComp/Dynabook, one of the precursors of the modern computer tablet.