The better mousetrap

As you may have noticed by now Opera for Wii is out.

I bought a Wii of my own a month or so back, my very first game console. I don’t mind playing games, but I’ve rarely got time for it. I tried a PS2 a few years ago and it was fine but really not too exciting. The gaming industry is far too focussed on graphics, which is much like special effects in movies: the experience may be more immersive but without a good story not worth much, and the gameplay seemed firmly stuck in the early 1990s.

Wii is fun, fast, and friendly, cute Mii avatars and all. That it is less powerful in technical terms than its competitors is actually part of the appeal.

The UI revolutions

Of course what it is really about is the Wii wand (or Wiimote as it unofficially is called) you wield. It is the center-piece in the user interface Revolution, as the device was code-named. The appealing Wii games are the ones where no buttons are pushed, but the wand is an extension of your body.

More ambitious phones all have UI inventions, not all successful. Siemens incorporated the phone camera in an augmented reality game setting, Apple iPhone will bring some improvements in tactile interfaces, a long-standing interest of theirs, other phones have included accelerometers before the Wiimote. Speech interfaces and handwriting recognition have been around for a while. Our mouse gestures had predecessors among computer games such as Black&White. In general games and mobile devices are good places for innovations.

Nintendo has done good work in not just making this a gimmick, but a fairly consistent environment. Some jar a little, the Wiimote is joined by the tail to the nunchuck game console interface (joystick and all), and their mental model are very different. The Wiimote is immersive, it gives you the illusion that your body is part of the game, while the nunchuck unit is manipulative.


But most notable the Wii system is mouse-free. The Wiimote doubles as a true pointing device, you use it to point at the screen, and the infrared lights and Wiimote receptor triangulate to decide what part of the screen it is pointing at. The accelerometers sense motion and rotation, with “rumble” vibration and the speaker giving feedback to the user. There are some oddities. If you point the Wiimote qua pointer outside the screen area you get no indicator other than that the cursor disappears. This can be desirable when you’ve parked the Wiimote, but new, and sometimes experienced, Wiimote operators wonder where the pointer went. An indicator which direction it is pointing to when outside the screen would have been helpful, as would possibly be locking it into the visible area.

We are trained to think that the mouse is a natural user interface. It is not, as anyone witnessing someone learning to use a mouse for the first time can attest to. Outside the workstation the mouse is outside its element. It needs a flat surface and a designated working area where you interact with the application. But this interaction is continuously interrupted when you access the menus, the toolbars, or the scrollbar, and then you have move the pointer back to the starting position again. The one major advance in the fourty year history of the mouse is thus the scroll wheel, though the trackball inverted mouse also deserves mention for foregoing the flat surface and working area. The number of buttons may vary, but the mouse has hardly changed. While it has served the personal computer well, it is less than certain that the mouse has any future as an input mechanism for future devices.


Speaking of buttons, a very common wish for Opera on the Wii is to get a keyboard to actually be able to create more text in reasonable time than most would be able to do on the virtual keyboard. I have no idea whether a wiiboard is in the works or not, though indications are that it is, but many have noted that it could use the Wii USB ports.

I for one hope not. It would be out of character, the user shouldn’t be bondage to the machine like it was some PC. With the Wii Bluetooth capabilities the keyboard should be in the hands of the user where he is, and a Wii player would throw any attempt to tie him down with a wire out the window.

Going wireless adds a battery requirement though. The keyboard could be wired to the Wiimote, depleting the batteries even faster, but you are using rechargeable batteries by now anyway. It might also remove the need for a Bluetooth controller, as the Wiimote supports the Bluetooth HID profile. That would prevent other devices to attach to the Wiimote though. You could almost wish having the devices daisy-chained, with the Wiimote on one side and for instance the Nunchuck on the other. That would come handy for the nose typists among us.

While the mouse could be replaced there aren’t really any current alternative for text input to the keyboard that wouldn’t require even more training to use efficiently, so something QUERTY should be taken as a given. With that as a requirement there are several options. It would be nice to use a foldable compact keyboard, so you could have the same keyboard for your Wii as you would for your phone. But the overlap between heavy phone users (with Opera Mini or Mobile of course) and Wii users is probably not that great.

It would make more sense to consider the Wiiboard a gaming/entertainment controller. Why shouldn’t the keyboard have accelerometers just like the Wiimote and the Nunchuck? While I’m not quite sure I would go for a Wiiboard cum frisbee controller, some Wiiboard gestures could be useful for text handling, user/system actions, and in particular gaming. Even without accelerometers it shouldn’t have to underperform the Classic controller. Some dedicated or user-defined keys could make it quicker to do rote tasks (and rote and Wii shouldn’t belong together). Many channels could benefit from that beyond the Internet channel, like for instance the Photo or Weather channel.

Join the Conversation

  1. something I don’t understand is why people still think they need some device for adding text to anything. There are *really* powerful voice recognition softwares around. So instead of typing some URL, I guess it should be possible (at least with the computing power of a Wii, if not also modern phones) to do a “crude” voice recognition, and if in doubt of what was said present the user with a list of options.See for a detailed explanation of what I mean.

  2. The thought has struck me too, why not add speech recognition to the Wii (the case for Opera Mini is interesting too, but different)? After all the Wiimote has a speaker, it is easy to imagine it with a microphone too.With Wii text to speech could make sense when canned speech won’t suffice (e.g. when you include variables like Mii name in the output), and voice commands could give an additional dimension to games and channels., e.g. saying “Prague” could show the fine weather we have here in the Weather Channel.But as text input alternative it isn’t good enough. To start with there is text input that really isn’t made for speech recognition, entering an URL is not much fun this way. Now, you can wonder if people should have to bother with entering URLs to begin with, but currently this is often what you have to do. Nothing beats the keyboard in creating nonsense at top speed, for a trained operator. An inexperienced hunt and peck typist might be slower than a skilled Wii virtual keyboard (or phone keyboard) user, and definitely slower than he would speak. For a phone handwriting is an alternative, for the Wii definitely not, but max speed at handwriting is definitely lower than for typing. Other alternatives that rival the keyboard are not easier to learn, and many of us have already learned how to type reasonably well. With speech recognition you will end up spending more time editing than you would with a keyboard, even if the recognition software performed perfectly, which it doesn’t always do (now, this particular Perl parsing was asking for trouble). This means that you have to ensure that the text editing goes smoothly, you really don’t want to be bogged down here. But Wii should have good social conditions for using speech. There are many cases where you would be selfconscious using voice, or where it would be frowned upon. In a cinema for instance. But in a social context where you are using your body already, probably waving your arms around, speech comes natural. Sometimes very natural.

  3. Editing – how many possibilities are there really to misunderstand a word for a decent voice recognition software? Giving 10 options or so for any word where the software is not really sure should be more than enough. We’re living in the 21st century. I haven’t used it yet myself, but what I hear about Dragon Natural Speaking is: “you speak, and you have to change only a few words in the text.”

  4. With editing I meant the entire process of changing from raw text to the text you want to publish. It isn’t unique to voice. In typing, when you make a typo you fix it. When a sentence is unclear you rewrite it. When a paragraph is too long or unclear you shorten it. Editing is a different process than entering text, people seem less good at it and like it less. Making editing enjoyable is an important challenge, particularly with game/entertainment device like Wii but also in general. Traditionally people have edited because they’ve been paid to do so, but what when people do it on their own time, blogs, forum messages, mail, instant messages, and so on, will they consider it a chore?Making editing more interactive can be more pleasant than editing an “old” text. If you make a typo you can fix is as soon as you spot it, making it almost unconscious. On the other hand switching from entering to editing mode and back is a costly process, you lose track of what you are doing. Also editorial experience tells that you make better edits with older text, because you can easier look at it with the reader’s eyes, not the writer’s (since by then you have forgotten how you came to write it at the first place), you might even laugh at your own jokes.Then there is the question how software can assist in this. I don’t use spell checkers, being arrogant enough to think that I never make mistakes, which in itself is a mistake. I do use WYSIWYG editors. I know HTML well enough that I could easily write text in source code, but every HTML tag is a switch into editing mode, and then text entry is interrupted. Text formatting should be done by software, ideally with no or minimal manual activation from the writer. Predictive text as used on Wii and phones is a context switch too, but one I use on these devices because text entry is so slow. I would never use it on a machine with a fully usable keyboard. Should dictation also use predictive text? I think it is beyond the technology to predict what word you are about to utter, but there could be arguments for putting them onscreen immediately.Again that is countered by that this text will be distracting. If you say “dear mom” and the screen displays “dear aunt” you are likely to lose your stride, especially if there are people sitting next to you getting one message from you and a different one from the display. Many editing techniques are not immediately suited for voice, like cut and paste. With the Wii I could imagine a microphone attachment to the Wiimote, with the Wiimote doing edit and text entry cursor manipulation, context switches, and other actions not conveniently or reliably performed by Voice (or possibly a separate headset, but still using the Wiimote to assist in editing). With the phone it would be different. Normally you can’t watch the display while talking in the phone, so the phone would continuously shift position from near your mouth during entry, and near your eyes during edit. However technology has changed social mores. Talking animatedly to nobody in particular was usually seen as a sign of the crazy person to stay away from, but now we can do it without too many fearful glances. Now you can walk and talk while watching the phone display intently, and people will look at you approvingly, not that you would take notice. With voice there are many constraints on where you can enter text. I couldn’t write this piece on the tram for instance (not that I could do that using Opera Mini anyway, it is much too long), and the pub is too loud. But the first time I enter the tram and can see all the passengers waving their phones around like Wii wands, while having merry conversations with their headsets, that day I’ll find myself a safe seat, lean back, and think “mission accomplished”.

  5. Wow, really interesting thoughts here!!I could imagine that the Wii actually brings the best conditions for speech-controlled writing. I only saw the Wii at a friend’s home, but I can already imagine myself sitting back in the couch and dictating an email. The text estimates would be displayed in some comic-style thinking bubbles, that I can comfortably choose from with the wiimote. I don’t even need to click, I just point at the text I want and continue talking. Backspace is a simple gesture-left, or a click on a dedicated button. And releasing the dictate key ends the dictate quasimode, allowing me to scroll around and place the cursor where needed. Maybe it would be even more efficient to bind the dictation quasimode to a touch field, instead of a button – if the wiimote had such touch-sensitive fields. This would be an even more fluid transition from writing to edit “mode”.I don’t know if dictation can be faster than qwerty typing. But the question of pure typing speed is a little misleading: The full speed of qwerty typing can only be achieved if most operations are done on the keyboard. In a realistic situation, however, a lot of time is wasted on moving hands between keyboard and mouse, or eventually food and drink or the phone receiver.I imagine this would be even worse when sitting on a couch with an attractive female, with no safe place to quickly put a bottle, not even the wiimote, and then you want both hands for typing. At least, the table will generally be farther away when sitting on a couch than when sitting at your desk. And the “wiiboard” will need to rest on your knees – which is also less practical than mouse and keyboard on a desk, that always remain in the same known place, even when you leave the room.This means, the voice + wiimote combination has some chances that could totally beat mouse + keyboard, or even mouse + keyboard + voice. Of course, in a desktop environment, the mouse could be a quite effective wiimote replacement – but the wiimote gives you the chance to lean back or walk around while working. In a desktop environment, being tied to the desk by the mouse doesn’t make a big difference – the keyboard does that anyway, and the mouse still gives some more freedom than the keyboard. But once you get rid of desk and keyboard, the wiimote (or something not desk-bound) becomes the instrument of choice. Finally, operating the wii can integrate much better with everyday activies, than operating a desktop pc ever did.The speed of qwerty typing is still tempting – some fancy ideas come to my mind, where fingers are tracked in the air, while pressing imaginary qwerty keys – possibly by an advanced nunchuck strapped to the palm of my hand, and with audio and vibration giving feedback for virtual button touch and press. But before that becomes realistic, voice-controlled writing seems like a promising solution.Typing urls will still be slow, of course – so that’s a drawback. But then I imagine walking around with something like a wiimote + camera, and photo-scanning a piece of text from my pc monitor to the wii clipboard. Again, this would have been tricky to do in a traditional desktop environment.Finally, I agree it’s not a 100% sufficient keyboard replacement. There are some applications that really require the full speed of a keyboard. Chat has the “use voicechat instead” alibi. Wysiwyg prose with heavy formatting, or spreadsheet apps could actually be faster with wii+voice, if you would otherwise jump a lot between mouse and keyboard, or waste time for text selection and cursor placing with the arrow keys. But writing long emails, blog articles, or even program code, can really make the extra keyboard the better choice.I also imagine there is a higher mental barrier for dictating unfinished thoughts, instead of typing them – so composing text could also be better with a keyboard..An exciting field, all in all. And some day I need to get a Wii myself! (The point is, I don’t want a Wii without a big tv display – which can be far more expensive than Wii alone)


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *