Input and Output Devices

I’ve been pondering the implementation of Dr. Engelbart’s NLS/Augment, and in particular the innovations he made in using new input and output devices.  I haven’t yet tried to generate an exhaustive list of all the ones he tried, but several in particular are obvious and stand out.  The mouse page at dougengelbart.org shows examples of several: the mouse, a (standard) keyboard, a chording keyboard or keyset, joy stick, light pen, and CRT display.

In the context of devices (tools) to augment a human’s ability to capture and interact with information, what options exist (so far), in what situations is each useful, and what makes sense for (either me, or most people) to use?

The mouse, light pen, and joystick could all be considered types of pointing devices.  We can contemplate other types of pointing devices as well: tablets (i.e. Wacom) using either fingers or stylii to point, touch tablets or touch screens (i.e. iPad or touchscreen laptop display) typically using fingers to point, track balls and other flavors of mice, trackpad and touchpads.  Some of the newer touch devices now allow gestures and multi-touch actions: for instance, the iPad/iPod/iPhone interface has two-finger pinch and expand motions, as well as others I’m not familiar with.  I believe Android and Windows platforms have similar multi-touch capabilities.

Each of these (pointing) devices has particular strengths and weaknesses, there is significant variation in which ones particular individuals find easiest to use, and there are some subtle distinctions in capabilities which need to be explored.  (Two-dimensional vs three-dimensional pointing, gross gesture vs very-fine-motion tracking, handwriting recognition, etc.)

Other input devices which easily come to mind include microphones, cameras, (image) scanners, fingerprint readers, head and eye trackers, and various types of proximity sensors.  Instrumented gloves or exoskeletons can be used for control as well as motion capture.  There are also devices such as the Kinect which can somehow sense positions of people and/or objects nearby.  That also suggests possible use of radar, sonar, infrared, and microwave sensors of various types.

For keyboards we normally think of a “standard” QWERTY keyboard.  There are other letter layouts such as Dvorak, and various “ergonomic” configurations and variations in key style and feel (chicklet, etc).  There are a handful of chording keyboards including the Twiddler and the Frog2, as well as a variety of DIY and Maker configurations.  As far as I’m aware, no one is currently marketing a 5-key chording keyset such as Engelbart used; a USB or MIDI keyboard with a small number of keys (usually 25) is the smallest I’ve seen.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to buy or build a chording keyset such as the one Engelbart used, so far with little success.  While there are several websites which describe various chording keyboards and how to build them, I’m not handy enough to fabricate one which looks and feels good enough to satisfy me.  I thought about buying a toy music keyboard for kids, and hacking the electronics to interface it to a computer, but found the prices were such it’s better to buy a purpose-built music keyboard with USB and/or MIDI interface.  Why buy a toy when you can buy a proper tool?

My current plan is to purchase a 25-key MIDI controller, which are available ranging in price from $60 to $150.  I tried several last weekend at a nearby music store, but didn’t like the feel of the keys on any of them. I’ll keep shopping until either I find one I like, or come up with a better idea…

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