The Belly Button Clicker

Recently a friend has been working to create a small wearable device that would signal a computer a mouse click when the user clenches his muscles in his stomach. Naturally, I thought of the belly button button or the belly button clicker. Now it actually has nothing to do with the belly button, but it sounds funny.

Although I’m laughing, this is a serious field of endeavor. Person/machine interfaces have been a triumph and disaster over the last couple of centuries. Some of the compromises remain with us today.

For example, the QWERTY keyboard that I am typing on was created for the original typewriter. The placement of the keys was intentional, a solution to a consistent problem. Typists would exceed the machine’s ability with their typing, so the keyboard was designed to slow the humans down to the machine’s speed. More than a century later we still use it. Despite efforts to introduce a better keyboard layout, it remains the standard.

Keyboards have a host of similar issues. In one version of its personal computer, IBM changed the size and shape of the carriage return button. (That’s now called the ‘Enter’ button.) IBM should have known better, having practically created a monopoly in typewriters with its ‘Selectric Typewriter’. The revision met ridicule, and one entrepreneur sold a joke extension to the right pinky finger to handle the new keyboard.

If you want to see a different keyboard for text entry, look at the one used by court reporters, the Stenotype. With one, a reporter can type two hundred or more words a minute. Compare that to the 30 words a minutes you needed in Keyboarding 101.

Not all mistakes have had such humorous consequences. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) lost a fortune investing in a mechanical typesetter. His losses force him to go on a world tour, packing audiences to hear his humor. Perhaps that is how the stand-up comic began.

I won’t discuss the numeric keypad that can be seen on everything from computer keyboards to adding machines, to electric calculators, to telephones, to security access devices. With only ten digits and a couple of other things, you’d expect they could be consistent. Really? Pull out your phone and compare it to your keyboard numeric pad.

The telephone keypad originated with the “Touch Tone” phones introduced in the 1960’s. The Computer number pad followed the design of the cash register and adding machines. Hence the double zero key. The result is that we have two numeric pads in our lives one with the ‘7’ in the top left corner, and another with a ‘1’ there. No one expected calculators and telephones to merge. Silly humans.

Today, we interact with computers in one form or another throughout most of our day. The types of interfaces have expanded. Touchscreen, voice recognition, thumb pads, stylus, and of course the mouse with its click and double click.

I remember years ago experimenting with dual mouses on a computer. I controlled one by hand. I control the other, a track ball, with my foot. The belly button clicker would have been perfect. I could have controlled the mouse while keeping my hands on the keyboard. Ask any old time users and they will explain that WordPerfect 5.2 for DOS was perfect because you could accomplish anything you wanted with a combination of the control, Alt and Function keys.

My friend’s efforts fit in with so many new uses for computers. A company is touting a putter which has sensors. It can tell the golfer how smooth his stroke is, the angle of the head to the motion and a host of other things. In effect, the putter is an input device to the computer.

How will we interact with computers and the world in twenty years? Will we have mind reading machines? Digital interfaces wired into our bodies? Computer screens on contact lenses in our eyes?

I suspect that anything I suggest that is too outlandish, will be to conservatives.

However, I’ll bet that one hundred years from now there will still be QUERTY keyboards and keyboarding classes in school.

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