Thumbsticks and the military

Popular Mechanics has a fun article about the evolution of the dual analog thumbstick controller and how it is being adopted by the military. (Via Instapundit.) Here’s the key bit:

By now, the dual analog thumbsticks on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers have turned the standard logic of the first-person shooter (FPS) into muscle memory for most red-blooded young American men (and I’m sure a few women, but I’m willing to call a gender bias on this one). Die-hard PC gamers will argue that a player with a mouse and keyboard can outgun a console player while eating a ham sandwich, but the portability, durability and easy ergonomics of the gamepad make it ideal for military use. “It’s interesting that all of the game paddles have evolved toward a similar thumb-based design,” says Bigham. “And when we’ve talked to our human factors experts, what they’ve told us is that the thumb is the most precise pointing instrument and requires the least energy.” While that low-energy, high-efficiency control may lead to less sunlight and exercise for hardcore gamers, it also allows soldiers to remotely fly UAVs effectively for long periods of time.

Some might say that all those teenagers “wasting time” on Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 are actually the warfighters of tomorrow, training themselves at zero cost to the U.S. taxpayer. In fact, when offered the choice between the traditional airplane controls and gamepad controls, many younger soldiers pick the thumbsticks that are familiar to them.

This is interesting, but the notion that the thumbstick is the perfect controller is nonsense. You don’t have to be a die-hard PC gamer; you merely have to have played both desktop and console games to know that a mouse is much better for aiming than a thumbstick.  (If it weren’t, would there be a market for this?)

Furthermore, the idea that the thumb is the most precise pointing instrument is ridiculous. Consider the trackpoint interface (that’s the rubber nub in the middle of the keyboard, common to ThinkPad laptops). You use it with your index (or “pointer”) finger, not your thumb, because your index finger is more precise. If you want to argue that that’s just because the trackpoint is placed conveniently for the index finger and not the thumb, consider the touchpad common to non-ThinkPad laptops. The usual placement of the touchpad (below the keyboard) is most convenient to the thumb, but still most people prefer to lift their entire hand off the keyboard into order to use the touchpad with their index finger. Moreover, while trackpoints and touch pads are very nice for computer work, nearly anyone would prefer a mouse for gaming.

I think that the big advantage of the thumbstick is ergonomic, not precision. You can put two thumbsticks plus several additional controls onto a controller that you can conveniently hold in your hand. With the keyboard/mouse or a joystick (i.e., airplane controls) you are affixed to stationary controls. (Yes, you could hold an old 1980s-era joystick in your hand, but then you got only one directional input, not two.)  So I think the “low energy” part of what they’re saying makes sense.  Also, the thumbstick is pretty good for movement (as opposed to aiming), and that may be more relevant to the military’s applications.

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