Agilent expands laser-guided mice availability

Agilent Technologies is equipping optical mice with laser sensors to make them work on smooth surfaces such as polished wood or frosted glass.

Agilent Technologies is equipping mice with laser sensors, the better to see on smooth surfaces such as highly polished wood or frosted glass.

The sensors won't be helping rodents scavenge for food on your coffee table, though: they're intended for manufacturers of optical pointing devices, and are now available to all manufacturers, after an exclusive deal between Agilent and Logitech expired this month. That could mean cheaper, more sensitive optical mice for all.

The first computer mice calculated hand movements by measuring the rotation of a rubber ball trapped between rollers inside the mouse as it slid across a desk. However, their moving parts could break or become clogged with dirt. Optical mice do away with these moving parts: instead, an LED (light-emitting diode) illuminates the surface and a miniature digital camera tracks the mouse's movement relative to imperfections in the surface. The system has its limitations: it won't work on surfaces that are too smooth or perfect, as there is nothing for the camera to see.

By using coherent laser light instead of the more diffuse illumination of an LED, Agilent's new sensors can detect surface imperfections that are much smaller or fainter than those visible to mice with LEDs, and so can work on many more kinds of materials. The sensors were first used a mouse launched by Logitech at the CES show in Las Vegas in January.

The sensors are now available to all mouse manufacturers, after the exclusive deal between Agilent and Logitech expired Wednesday, according to Ngoh Kee-Hane, vice president and general manager for the navigation products division of Agilent's semiconductor products group.

Agilent offers the sensors in three bundles, each containing a laser, a chip package containing a sensor and associated electronics, and plastic lenses and mountings to hold the optics in place. The bundles are designed for cordless mice, corded mice and gaming mice, which are more sensitive to fast or precision movements. The components will sell for US$5, US$6 and US$7 respectively, in large quantities -- and that means a million or more units, Ngoh said, speaking by telephone from the Computex trade show in Taipei.

Many of the mouse manufacturers at Computex have shown an interest in the laser components, he said, and he expects products containing them will appear on the market within a couple of months.

Early next year, the company aims to introduce a laser component bundle for entry-level mice costing between US$3 and US$4 in large quantities, Ngoh said. That's comparable with the cost of an LED optical system today: high-end LED-sensor bundles cost around US$4 per mouse, he said.

Today, laser mice account for around 3 percent of Agilent's optical mouse component revenue; Ngoh expects that to rise to 15 percent by the end of the year and to around 50 percent in two years or so.

Those concerned at the idea of having an exposed laser shining out of the bottom of their mouse need not worry, he said. Strict safety rules apply to the use of lasers, and those used in Agilent's mouse components are "Class 1," which means they won't damage the eye even if stared at for prolonged periods. To get that rating, they have to be designed so that their output power never exceeds a safety threshold even under fault conditions. The scale goes up Class 4: It's unsafe even to glance at the diffuse reflection of a laser beam in that category.

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