Input Technologies for CAD: What’s the Best Mouse for Your Workflow? Part 2

29 Dec, 2015 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: In addition to the standard and more elaborate models for general use, the market offers CAD users mice designed just for them — and the future holds new possibilities in gesture-recognition technologies.

The Movement Toward Motion

In addition to the three categories of devices we’ve discussed, there are new input technologies just starting to make their way into the spotlight. When I introduced this topic in Part 1 of this series, I downplayed the hype surrounding gesture recognition — the ability of a computer to remotely detect motions — as a means to replace the mouse. But while waving hands and directing your gaze may never develop into our primary form of machine input, motion’s potential is undeniable. In all likelihood, CAD users will be using gesture to navigate 3D models at some point in the future, at least in some form.

Helping to make that transition — from a pointer device on the desk to device-less gesture recognition — are products such as Innovative Devices' wearable mouse, the Mycestro. Mycestro supports the most human of all pointer devices: the finger. Just wear it like a ring, point directly at the screen, and work the three buttons with your thumb. To the operating system, Mycestro seems like any other mouse, so it’s automatically compatible with any Windows application you'd like to use.

The Mycestro wearable mouse. Image courtesy of Innovative Devices.

Devices like the Mycestro should help grease the skids for gesture support and adoption, probably representing more of a stepping stone than a final destination. The ultimate goal many vendors have in mind requires no wearable device at all, in fact. Many see the potential in device-less gesture recognition and are pushing the technology and markets forward. Intel, known for providing processors and platforms for workstations, positions its RealSense-branded depth-sensing technology for a range of uses, including some that apply very well to CAD, such as 3D scanning and gesture recognition. And a broad host of vendors big and small are jumping on the bandwagon, developing hardware and software products to drive the technology forward.

Consider startup Leap Motion, for example. Simply connect the company's Leap Motion Controller to your workstation’s USB port, then hold your hand over the unit and swipe, grab, or pinch in midair to manipulate your view. Leap Motion does not position its current products as mouse replacements, but the technology certainly does hint at where motion control is headed and how it may change or complement the mouse's role in the future. For a peek at one potential scenario in automotive design, check out the Leap Motion demonstration of car model manipulation and rendering.

The Leap Motion Controller in use. Image courtesy of Leap Motion.

While the potential of the technology is obvious, gesture as a comprehensive, broad-based replacement for — or even a compelling complement to — the tried-and-true mouse is still a ways off. With so much potential, however, the technology, products, and industry stakeholders are maturing fast, needing just a bit more incubation time. An ecosystem of gesture-based input devices, platform capabilities, and application compatibility should eventually bootstrap itself to a tipping point, where compelling and effective products come supported by the mission-critical applications designers depend on.

Should You Step Up Your Mouse Game?

It's never been more important to achieve more in less time. With the incredible computing and graphics power available in a workstation today, now it's often the computer waiting for the user, rather than the other way around. As such, quick and effective mouse work is not only still important, it remains one of the critical means of maximizing CAD throughput. Or conversely, if you're not taking advantage of ways to make your mouse-work faster and more precise, you're missing out on a valuable opportunity to improve productivity, and thereby, your bottom line.

How valuable? Is it really worth spending money and time to look for — and possibly experiment with — the various options available? There are a few ways to look at it, depending on your experience level and preferences. First, determine which best describes your situation:

  • Like most people, you've never really paid too much attention to your mouse, but you recognize that even small improvements in ergonomics could result in material improvements in efficiency and productivity.
  • You already pay attention to them when outfitting your machines, and you have clear ergonomic preferences or needs (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome) that dictate certain features.
  • You know a mouse better suited to your personal preferences and requirements would be of compelling value, but you're just not sure which one is right for you.

If you're in the first category, it's worth checking out a premium mouse, either CAD-optimized or not, based on what the features deliver and how well you think they mesh with your design style. The price premium is tiny, in the grand scheme of things, and you never know what you might be missing out on unless you give it a go. The worst that can happen is that you’ll spend an extra $100, then end up reverting to your old mouse. But in the best case, the new device will noticeably increase your CAD speed, accuracy, and overall design game. Remember when you finally went to the effort to add a second or third monitor, and now you realize you can’t live with just one? You might feel the same after finding the right mouse (or mice).

If you're in that second category above, you probably already have a go-to mouse, or at least a known preference for some of the more noteworthy features, such as wireless or not, trackball or not, extra precision or not. And if you're in the third category, it might be time to start experimenting. Ultimately, it will come down to personal preference, whether you're left-handed or right (there are fewer options for lefties, sorry), and usage — specifically, how you interact with your software design package and your typical design models.

It seems that those who care about the mouse they use have tried many options, and once they found one they liked, have stuck with it, often for a long, long time. Some find wires a nuisance; others don't mind, and want to avoid creating any radio frequency interference problems or wasting time with batteries or recharging. Some prefer more buttons and more programmability, while others like keep things simple and streamlined. A few have repetitive use injuries or issues that dictate a specific size or motion or position that facilitates resting a wrist or limiting motion. And in some cases, it's not the technical features that are the deciding factor, but simply how well it fits a particular user's hand.

My personal thinking goes back to that price premium argument. When one considers all the other IT costs involved in outfitting a designer or engineer (think software seats and maintenance, not just hardware acquisition costs), the $100 difference between a CAD-optimized mouse and a free one, spread over its useful life, is just a drop in the bucket — so there's no reason not to at least give one a try. And don't judge until you've given it a fair chance by using for days, not just a few hours.

In the end, you might find that fancy features and CAD-slanted design don’t suit your style or typical usage — or you might find the opposite. But regardless of the outcome, it's worth taking a moment to consider how many rotations, zooms, selections, and commands you perform in an hour, then multiply by hours in the day, days in the week, and weeks in the year. Add it all up, and shaving a second or even fraction of a second per command could pay off significantly — in productivity, quality, and, ultimately, profitability.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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