Scroll wheels, discs, pads and cylinders

Updated [MP3 Insider] Synaptics wasn’t offering its technology to any other MP3 player companies until recently, and it still doesn’t offer the round version found on the iPod to anyone but Apple. However, as mentioned above, the company made a straightened-out version of it for Creative’s Zen Touch, which evidently doesn’t violate whatever agreement Synaptics has with Apple. It makes a bit more sense conceptually, since song lists run up and down instead of in circles, but the scrollwheel lets you scroll faster, because your finger can go around continuously instead of returning to the top of the strip. To make the Zen Touch even more competitive with the iPod, I recommended to Creative that it implement a new feature that would scroll down one screen.

Limiting my scope of discussion to navigation wheels and pads (& co.) found on MP3 players, I have to admit that neither the iPod wheel (a disc really), nor the Zen’s pad feel really practical to use.

In general, I like:
+ buttons you don’t have to press hard on to click (but touch-sensitive buttons don’t always work… therefore I don’t trust them and am forced to double check my actions on the screen, which is counter-productive etc…),
+ an interface that very obviously links the movement of your fingers with the direction of your input (rotating a disc to scroll vertically in the iPod is irritating),
+ a physical input interfrace like the disc of the first generation iPod that was actually rotating under your fingers. Give me more of that!

For those reasons, my favourite input interface for an MP3 player would be closer to the Sony scroll wheel (cylinder really), like the one found on my mobile phone:
+ it’s small, yet allows for efficient and fast scrolling,
+ it mimics the direction of the scrolling interface,
+ gives discreet step-effect feedback to the finger.

However, the buttons they added on the sides for Next and Back are too small for my big fingers and too hard to press (in contrast, the wheel has to be caressed, and pressing on the side buttons makes me press on the wheel too).
For the side actions, I would re-use the Microsoft’s tilt wheel mechanism as:
+ it allows for minimum-effort panning forward or back in the interface.
+ your finger move in the direction of your navigation in the interface instead of clicking down to move right and clicking down to move left too…

Integrating some of this essence in the Sony scroll cylinder to make it perfect for me, I would:
+ double its length, merely using the space previously taken by the side buttons
+ give it touchpad-like properties that would allow me to rub my thumb left and right along its length to navigate back and forth in the interface.

Now, what I found out while playing Bomberman on my phone is that, no matter how practical for surfing the net it is, the scrollwheel is unusable for gaming. You have no way to precisely control your up and down input and it is likely you’ll go up 2 blocks instead of one and step in the field of the bomb etc…

So that kills any of my theories above… and that killed the scrollwheel on the Sony phones (sometimes in mid 2005) who gave “gaming” as their official reason for phasing it out in favour of the ubiquitous Xpad with center button (it was also making phones too thick and letting too much dust inside the phone leading to more breakdowns – I heard from insiders).
Probably feeling a little bad for this awkward move (aren’t Sony totally marketing their phones as music players and not consoles though, in Japan!!?), Sony now offers “page scrolling” buttons on the side of their phones, but reaching for those buttons after having clicked the center pad button requires moving your thumb to a totally different place on the phone which actually requires you to modify your handling of the phone all together, and therefore, I never use those buttons… Duh!!
Or they could have just made a tiny scroll wheel to fit in the space of the Xpad center button. but they didn’t and I found something else…

Enter the Jog Ball.
Have you seen some of the super thin D-Snap Panasonic digital cameras… they had, in place of a dial or Xpad, a ball. a super tiny 10mm diameter ball that you could also click (same as on some of those huge mouse/joystick combos…).

Now, imagine replacing the center button of any mobile phone Xpad with a ball that can scroll in any direction and be clicked…
You’d keep the clicking, you’d keep the super fast scroll (which is a pain in the ass on ALL phones) and you’d keep the Xpad for gaming and usual tasks. You could think up a hundred new cool games around the new inputs. You could use the jog ball as a precise mouse cursor…
Hear me!!?

First published on 2005-01-28

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    Based in Paris & Tokyo, Paul Baron is a senior product manager for hire. Ex-@AQworks. Co-founder of cultural platform Tokyo Art Beat.
    Service design, interaction design, startups, user research.
    Posts a few times a decade since 2003.

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