Two Mice, One Computer...

In 1968, Dr. Doug Engelbart hosted a demo that would later be known as “The Mother of All Demos.” In it, he shared a number of technologies that had been under development for quite some time with a team of researchers. Within the span of 90 minutes, he unleashed an awesome torrent of technology, including the following: hypertext, text editing, email, multiple windows with flexible view control, and of course, the computer mouse. How do you do that? How do you develop such an panoply of technology? How do you come up with that many rock solid designs – designs that have remained substantially unchanged in for forty years?

In an interview with Computerworld, Dr. Engelbart mentions that his work in developing these technologies was guided by a “goal to develop systems that would augment the human intellect.”¹

Here’s a list of a few of the inventions that debuted in at that demo in 1968 along with the corresponding, timeless human traits that they augment:

Hypertext Tangential ideas
Text editor Building ideas
Email Communicating
Multiple windows w/ flexible view control Containing ideas, multitasking, and interacting within separate ideas.
Computer mouse Manipulating ideas.

Ah, the computer mouse. If you told a computer programmer in 1967 that one day they’d be able to dynamically manipulate data simply by dragging a hunk of plastic around, they probably wouldn’t have believed you. Remember, computers back then were just glorified calculators that ate and spat punchcards. Engelbart and his team discovered an elegant shortcut, giving the user’s hand direct access to a field of ideas – to data that would otherwise by locked in a box.

Sure, today we have eight button mice, laser, optical, trackball, scroll wheels, and wireless, but in essence, all of these variations stem from that one mouse debuted in '68 - simply because the first one was such a damn good idea.

So excuse me if I sound foolish when I say I want another. Not all the time, of course, but for a few uses.

There are times in Photoshop, for example, where one mouse just doesn’t cut it. To transform an image, you:

  1. Click and drag the on image to position it
  2. Click and drag on one of those eigh border dots on the edges to rescale it,
  3. Click and drag outside one of those eight dots to rotate it,
  4. After you place your object, you're likely to realize, for example, that the position doesn't work for this rotation, so you'll have to do any combination of steps 1-3 until you're happy

On the other hand, if you had two mice you would click, swing your object over, and transform all three properties in one drag:


(for credits, go to the youtube page hosting this video)

First let me say that I seriously doubt that a second mouse would make ordinary things easier. If, for example, we all started off with one arm, and one day we all woke up with a second one. We wouldn’t start opening doors or jotting down notes with both arms. In fact, I doubt we’d do much at all with the second arm, because we would have designed our environment to accommodate the fact that we only had one.

The first step we would take to start enjoying having two arms would be to start playing around – to have… uh, two armed competitions, to start dancing, and to share and celebrate the awkward and seemingly superfluous limb that is the second arm.

My point is this – a two mouse system certainly wouldn’t help assist in opening documents or writing emails, but if you released an API to one hundred flash game designers, they’d probably discover a few important things. First, as soon as they actually place both their hands on two mice at the same time, they’ll realize that the fundamental mechanics are no more confusing than one mouse, and that the overall experience is more expressive. They’ll then begin playing around and discover new ways to build an expressive relationship between the user and the computer.

I’m interested to hear what others think. Very interested. Comment or email me your thoughts.