Use your head

The next time your boss tells you to use your head, say that you are – and point to the silver dot on your forehead. Then be sure to explain quickly that the metallic addition to your cranium is an alternative input device designed to replace your PC’s mouse.

The gizmo comes from Eye Control Technologies Inc., and it’s called a NaturalPoint TrackIR. The US$99 device lets you stick a little computing power on your forehead and navigate your digital world by moving your head.

The TrackIR hardware that gives the silver dot its capabilities sits on top of your PC monitor and is about the same size as a Web camera. It’s actually an infrared transmitter and receiver that picks up the coordinates of the silver dot that you stick to your forehead, nose or eyeglasses.

Originally, Eye Control’s target customers were computer users with physical disabilities. But thanks to a dramatic price drop in the cost of the hardware, the company is now trying to broaden the market for its technology and hopes to appeal to gamers, notebook users and people who have repetitive strain injuries.

The TrackIR hardware atop your monitor beams infrared light that is reflected by the silver dot. A tiny camera inside the hardware tracks the dot, letting you take control of your mouse pointer by moving your head. TrackIR ships with 60 reusable dots and a sheet of 60 replacement dots costs US$4.

I tested a pre-production model of the TrackIR. In spite of my gawking colleagues, who thought the dot on my forehead meant I’d joined a secret PC cabal, I concluded the TrackIR is a fun piece of hardware that has limited practical appeal.

I kept thinking it would be nice if I could wink an eye to double-click my TrackIR mouse. But since people haven’t yet found a way to embed a computer chip in your brain, TrackIR relies on keyboard shortcut keys for mouse clicks. I designated my Page Up and Page Down keys as my left and right mouse buttons respectively, enabling me to easily drag and drop, double-click, and select items. You can also configure a Scroll key that works well with Web pages, and designate a Reset key that places your mouse pointer in the middle of your computer screen.

On the downside, the pre-production model I tested had a few glitches. For example, the TrackIR depends on infrared rays that are sensitive to light. When the sun was shining directly into my office, my pointer was prone to moving erratically.

Another problem cropped up when I tried to use TrackIR with Activision’s popular shoot-em-up game Soldier of Fortune. The pointer tended to lose track of the centre of the monitor. Eventually, to keep my virtual soldier looking forward, I had to look sharply to the left. Needless to say, my life expectancy wasn’t too high in that game.

Give Your Mouse a Hand

TrackIR also ships with a finger-ring control option (the US$99 package includes two rings). In this mode, you slip a ring on your finger and position the TrackIR hardware just below your monitor. You move your mouse pointer by waving your finger in the air just above your keyboard.

With a notebook, you can fasten the TrackIR device at the top of the screen to use the forehead dot or put the hardware at the notebook’s side to use the ring. TrackIR will appeal to those looking for an alternative to often-cumbersome notebook mice.

An Eye Control TrackIR Presenter model is also available, priced at US$149. The added input device is a plastic wand the size of a key chain, with an infrared light at one end. This wand works from as far as about 20 feet and within a 50-degree angle of the base TrackIR receiver. That’s good enough for a conference-room roundtable presentation, but not much more.

NaturalPoint is intended to be the cat that kills the computer mouse, or at least gives it a scare. For many users, old mouse habits may die hard. NaturalPoint works well, but it’s downright awkward; at this point, it may be more novel than practical. It might come in handy as an alternative to what passes for mice on notebooks, but mounting TrackIR at the top of a notebook display isn’t easy. The ring control takes some practice at best. In wand mode, TrackIR should make an affordable presentation pointer.