Friday, 13 September 2013

Trackpoint / pointing stick / joy nub

Yesterday I was in South Africa. But I'm not any more. During a week and a half there, I didn't see a single typewriter. Not even one. Although I must admit to not having looked terribly hard. So while nothing new was learned about typewriters in this foray across the Indian Ocean, something was learned about the design of more modern writing technologies. What brought me to South Africa in the first place- Cape Town to be more exact, was the Interact 2013 conference. This conference deals with the many and varied facets of Human Computer Interaction and technology design and my research institution kindly paid for the air tickets over there on account of the paper I was presenting.
Human-Computer Interaction or HCI represents an incredibly diverse and very exciting field of research that I have only become acquainted with during the past couple of years. The C in HCI is not restricted to personal computers and encompasses- mobile phones, digital noticeboards, basically pretty much any sort of computerised interface that we interact with in everyday life. A theory common to a lot of HCI work is that the people who will ultimately use a device or interface ought to be included in the design process. In relation to typewriters, I'd love to know whether and how typewriter manufacturers integrated their target market into usability testing and design. Also, of interest to many of us typewriter tinkerers, one of the keynote speakers at the conference mentioned the trend of using 3D printers for creating parts for vintage technology is becoming more wide spread and something that will certainly revolutionise the preservation of historical technology in the years to come. 

Once the conference was finished I had five days to explore. Last Saturday a group of 9 random conference participants with a couple of extra days up our sleeves hired a taxi-van and spent a day exploring the national park around Cape Point and meandering back through some of the seaside towns. This group was comprised of a couple of student volunteers like myself, some career academics and practising designers. Although ages, experience and research fields differed, we had commonality of having participated in some way at the conference. Which brings me to the title of this post and frankly, the closest this post is going to come to discussing typewriters at all. Which is to say not very close.
So what is the trackpoint / pointing stick / joy nub? It is of course the little red knob in the middle of keyboards on certain modern day typewriters (laptops) that moves the cursor. Although Wikipaedia uses "Pointing stick", I knew of it as a trackpoint, but have also heard of it referred to as a joy nub (as to joy stick).

Regardless of what this thing is called, it is something that you use, but you don't really think about. It's just there and it works. Which is the hall-mark of a good interface design really. Because if you are aware you're using an interface to access something (rather than concentrating on what it is you're actually accessing), it's probably because it's difficult to use. Thus I would never have thought any more about this little thing, had it not been that the man responsible for designing it happened to be one of the random assortment of people sharing the taxi around Cape Point that day. The man responsible is Ted Selker, pictured below photographing the amazing scenery from the back of a truck. Ted is a computer scientist and designer with a very impressive list of achievements to his name.

But what was nice about that particular day, was the fact the that work wasn't the main focus of the conversations between everyone. Rather than representing our work and our respective institutions like we did at the conference, we were instead a bunch of 9 people from 6 countries, enjoying a grand day out on the Western Cape. 


Now being freshly back in Australia I've got to come to terms with a whole bunch of work waiting for me, unseasonably hot weather and new conservative idiot of a Prime Minister running the country, who won the election while I was away. But then again, home is where the heart is and where the majority of my 15 typewriters are, so it's not all bad news.

Source of trackpoint picture:


  1. My Lenovo laptop has the little red joy nub, a leftover from the IBM days. It's handy, but I rarely use it, preferring the flat track pad located below the keyboard instead.
    And yes, a conservative idiot is now running the country.
    See what happens when you step out of the country?

  2. My first computer was an old IBM Thinkpad and once I got used to the trackpoint (kinda like with learning the guitar) I liked it more than a trackpad. As a plus you could tell when you were dehydrated by how much of a dent was left in your fingertip. XD

  3. Not only a conservative idiot but a refugee from the previously defunct DLP.
    Seriously though, if the US could appoint George Dubya Bush and Caligua's horse could get elected to the Roman Senate, why should we be surprised?

  4. Nice photos. I would rather use the track point than a touch pad any day. Touch pads are the biggest waste of space on a keyboard. Trackpoint is stable, touch pads -- well I could go on and on with my rant against them. BTW I design HMI screens and most of those now are touch and very reliable. They are the foundation technology for the touch PC monitors. These kind of touch interfaces are accurate an reliable. Those tiny touch pads are plain garbage.

  5. Ah, we used to call those 'nubbins'. Though neither a techie nor a nubbin user, I remember explaining what the lump of blue snot in the middle of our FD's keyboard was to him. This was 1990s.

  6. The joy nub, that's a better word than pointing stick. I use it daily, also on a Lenovo Thinkpad. It's already halve worn out but luckily I can twitch it the other way around so the good part is now at the spot where my finger touches it the most. How very cool to meet the inventor!

  7. "Joy nub" is a very, er, evocative term.

    That's a good question about how much ergonomic research typewriter manufacturers did. Rheinmetall did come out with an ergonomic split keyboard in the '30s (recently featured on Robert's blog).

    A mathematician colleague of mine just got a Makerbot 3D printer. I can't wait to try to print a Hermes 3000 knob!

    1. Evocative is correct. Have a google and you'll find 'joy nub' is certainly not the only name for it that you might think twice about using in polite conversation!

  8. You do meet some interesting people, don't you!

    Actually, the subject of design has been rather on my mind lately.

    BTW... I'm going to flick you an email. Now you're back, I think it is time that Jane, yourself and I headed over to John's place again.