Improved mouse control for users with disabilities

Novel software makes fine control of a mouse much easier for users with motor control problems.

If you have users on your network who have any form of motor control disability they may have trouble using a standard mouse because it requires fine-grained movements to click on onscreen controls such as buttons and sliders.

The aptly named AIM Research Group at the University of Washington team has released, for free, two mouse cursor control systems for Windows that make locating the mouse on a target and interacting with it easier by changing the way the user interacts with the display.

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The group's first cursor system is called The Pointing Magnifier and is claimed to make clicking accurately on an onscreen object something like 23% faster (the group has a paper that explains the science behind this technique).

The system creates a circular "locating" cursor that is sized according to the user's ability to control the mouse -- the less control the bigger the locating cursor and vice versa. Once the locating cursor is over the target, clicking any mouse button locks the locating cursor in place and the area under the circular cursor is shown enlarged.

The Pointing Magnifier

Subsequent mouse movements control a standard cursor within the zoomed area and any "mouse up" event (i.e. the end of a click or the end of a click and drag) within the zoomed area is sent to the corresponding coordinates on the normal-sized screen and the locating cursor is shown again.

The system works great but there are a couple of minor problems: Application controls that detect "mouse over" and "mouse hover" states don't work (so, for example, the Windows Start bar has to be configured so it doesn't "auto-hide"), and popup and dropdown menus are rendered, unmagnified, on top of the locating cursor. Even so, this looks to be a terrific aid for those with impaired motor skills.

The AIM group's other cursor control system, the Angle Mouse, adjusts the velocity of the cursor according to the rate of linear velocity and angular change of the cursor's path (there is a paper on this technique). The idea is to manage users' cursor positioning input even when they have trouble maintaining smooth hand movements.

With the Angle Mouse system switched on, smooth, fast mouse position changes in a straight line are ignored while fast movements on a curve are slowed up and thereby smoothed; the software effectively makes "targets bigger in motor-space," which is to say that the relationship between the physical movement and the on-screen movement is modified to effectively enlarge the geometry of the target area as the user slows down the mouse.

Curiously, while the software was actually designed for disabled users, I find the Angle Mouse enhances mouse usability by making fine cursor control generally better. Try it and see if you don't find the system to be an effective user interface improvement. I hope they've patented this technique because it should be part of all operating systems.

The Angle Mouse cursor system is far more "techie" but, unlike the Pointing Magnifier, isn't quite ready for prime time as the control panel for the software has way too many mysterious settings unless you plan to spend a lot of time fooling around with it.

I'm giving University of Washington's AIM Research Group and their software a rating of 5 out of 5 for extreme cleverness and to encourage them to carry on refining their cursor control software.

So, tell me: What are you doing to support your disabled users and what more should you or would you like to be doing?

Gibbs is in Ventura, Calif. Your thoughts to

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