AT LARGE: Nothing more than feelings

As I write this, the countdown timer on the Olympics Web site says there are 127 days, 17 hours, some minutes and seconds to go before the momentous event begins. This is not, as you might think, a comment on the massive lead times inherent in print publishing. I am not writing this in early March - it is late August, and there are some very few days left before the Olympiad begins.

However I, like many of my fellow Sydneysiders, am fairly well jack of being told how many seconds it is until the Olympics. On the aforementioned Web site at www.olympics.com.au (not the strictly official Web site, but Channel 7's Olympic coverage site) there is a Java applet counting down to midnight on 14 September. Anyone with sufficient nous to change their computer's date and time can make it say all manner of silly things. Set it for any time after midnight on 14 September (including times after the Games will have finished) and it proclaims, in the manner of Chicken Little, "The Games Are Upon Us!"

(Incidentally, there are no events scheduled to begin at midnight on 14 September. The opening ceremony is some 18 hours after that, and there are soccer games running some 31 hours before the mark. Anyone who knows anyone responsible for Channel 7's Web site might want to mention this).

As you might have gathered, I'm fairly bored with my Web browsing. Quixotic sabotage of Olympic Java applets for fun is a sure sign the thrill is gone. Clearly, what I need is something to make my browsing more immediate, more real, more tactile.

Enter Logitech, the world's dominant maker of computer mouses, rivalled only by MS. Like all good market leaders, Logitech is unafraid to innovate rather than imitate, to lead rather than respond. Some companies in Logitech's position wait for smaller companies to innovate and create demand, then move in with buckets of cash to steal the glory - not naming any names.

Logitech, however, has decided to blaze a trail with something called an iFeel MouseMan. This is a mouse unlike other mouses, mice or meeces. It lets you "feel" what's on a Web site you're looking at. Roll it over an image of ice, and it glides easily. Roll it over a picture of rough gravel, and it's a trickier task - according to Logitech, anyway. I haven't used one yet, but I'm intrigued.

The trick behind it is technology adapted from video games. Within the mouse is a thing Logitech calls a "high-fidelity Inertial Harmonic Drive Engine". You and I might call it a "lump of plastic that vibrates". This lump, or engine, if you will, can be made to wibble against the inside of the mouse's case at a tremendous rate. In much the same way a joystick can be made to "kick back" to imitate gunfire or a rough road, the iFeel MouseMan can be made to respond to textural information provided by custom software.

Of course, it sounds like a neat little novelty, and I'd love to have a play with one some time. I'm sure providers of "adult-oriented" (wink wink) content on the Web would love to try and find a way to exploit the technology - I'd prefer not to think about that.

The odd thing is that Logitech seems to be trying to push it as an aid to e-commerce. By enhancing their Web sites with tactile information, online traders will be able to offer iFeel users the ability to feel the texture of the clothes they want to buy, for example. This I would have to see, or rather feel, for myself. I imagine that denim and silk might feel different when simulated by a computer input device, but more subtle differences I suspect may be lost. The thing is, if it's actually a good idea, and if people really find it useful, the thing will take off. I'm not really sure how this will go. Stretching to think of some extremely unlikely application in e-commerce seems destined to make it look like a bad idea before you start. Chances are there's no way to make Web sites with "feel appeal" more profitable than plain old flat Web sites - so be it. Maybe they can be more fun anyway.

Matthew JC. Powell wants someone to develop technology that will enable him to feel thin while buying clothes. Suggestions (not including diet and exercise) can be sent to mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au

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