Scroll Crank

Scroll Crank is a speculative design project that transforms the passive action of scrolling with a typical computer mouse wheel into a physical, intentional experience. In gripping the device base, turning the crank, and hearing gears churning, the user’s attention is directed back to their own body while using a tool that typically has a dissociating, disembodying effect. 

Prototype; video; photograph series
Advisors: Bethany Johns, John Caserta, Ed Brown

A computer mouse detects a user’s hand motion and converts it into a set of X and Y coordinates. The tool was first used in a 1968 landmark presentation commonly referred to as “the Mother of All Technology Demos” by Stamford engineer Douglas Engelbart. Since that time, the mouse has gone through countless evolutions and upgrades, including the wildly successful Apple “Lisa Mouse” debuted in 1984, which changed public understanding around the possibilities of personal computing. Although contemporary mouse and trackpad technology looks quite different from Engelbart’s 1968 prototype (which featured a wooden base and a metal scroll wheel), Engelbart’s general framework for flattening motion into a 2-dimensional data space still drives the modern technological tools humans use (tablets, smartphones, etc) to control computer interfaces.

Yet, key to Engelbart’s device is human gesture: scrolling, clicking, hovering. Like most analog tools, the mouse would not work without human input. Hands grip the mouse base and glide the device’s optical sensors from one point to another. Our pointer fingers lightly press and pull the rubber scroll wheel, generating just enough force and friction to rotate the wheel at our desired rate. We gently push the plastic casing covering the mouse body until we hear the familiar and endlessly satisfying “click.” The gestures we use to navigate the glass surfaces of smartphones and tablets today echo those demonstrated by Engelbart in 1968.

Of course, not all tools are created equal. There is a distinct difference between the scroll of a mouse wheel with one finger and the upper body thrust of hammering a nail into a wall. There is even more of a discrepancy when we swap “mouse” with “iPhone screen.” Although in their evolutionary history, people started off relying on hands as tools themselves, scraping with fingernails and hammering with fists, and over centuries have evolved to use hands to make and operate tools that extend gesture, cutting with blades, crushing with stone, and amplifying sound with percussion horns, modern computational tools are completely disconnected from the bodily motions we use to operate them.

When you type on a keyboard, or scroll on your phone, do you ever think about the motion of your fingers or state of your body in general? Instead of using hand movements as an aid to our thinking and creativity,  modern technology minimizes our hands as an insignificant access point to the digital world, and diminishes our awareness of the bodies we use to navigate the physical world that we are actually living in.

When we no longer use our hands the way we’ve evolved to do, when the tools we use every day exclude our human capability to feel, grip, build and collaborate, what else do we lose? What do we sacrifice when we replace thinking through movement and gesture with computer-aided thinking that barely requires any moving at all? The Scroll Crank prosthetic explores these questions, harkening back to the days of Engelbart’s original mouse design, and revaluing human connection to technological tools. Although a scroll crank made of plastic may not offer the final solution to these critical societal issues, it hopefully achieves something that even the most contemporary devices fall short of: activate the high concentration of nerve endings in your fingertips and direct your attention back to one of the most distinctly human features of your whole body, your hands.
Los Angeles, Calif.