What is a hands-free mouse?
A hands-free mouse is a system that allows full control of computer mouse functions without use of the hands. This post was inspired by a question to the QIAT listserv, asking about mouse emulators that could be used by a high school student with quadriplegia. You might benefit from a hands-free mouse if you, like this student, have little to no functional movement of your hands or fingers. You might also benefit from a hands-free mouse if you need to avoid using a regular mouse due to repetitive stress injury or pain, or if you are in a hands-busy environment where your hands just aren’t that available to use a regular mouse.
By choosing the hands-free mouse that best meets your needs, you can have an efficient and comfortable way to control the mouse without using your hands. Read on for some key considerations that will help you make a good choice.
13 key considerations
It’s tempting to just jump right into a list of all the available options out there. (And we’ll get to that in a future post.) But it’s worth thinking about the various considerations of what to look for in any mouse alternative, before getting too much into the details of specific products or trialling any devices. This gives a more principled basis for matching device features to your particular needs.
Here are 13 important considerations that apply to most cases; their relative importance depends on your specific needs. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will give you a good starting point. We’ll start with considerations that relate to how it works and then consider how these apply to your requirements as a user.
Considerations: How it works
1. Cursor control
Cursor control defines exactly what you need to do to move the mouse cursor around the screen. Many hands-free mice are designed to use head movement to drive the cursor, but others may use lip movements, eye gaze, or voice commands. And even those mainly designed for head movement can be used with other body sites, if those are more functional for you. Many devices use direct cursor control: your body movement directly moves the mouse cursor, similar to a regular mouse. But other methods, particularly speech recognition, use a more indirect approach to hone in on the desired cursor location over multiple steps.
You’ll want to be able to move and control the cursor with reasonable speed and precision, to any spot on the screen. You’ll also want the sensitivity to provide a good match between your movements and the cursor’s movements. This allows you to get across the whole screen easily and hone in on small targets without difficulty. Some of this you can only tell by trying out the device, but you may be able to narrow down the choices a bit first by considering how your physical strengths and limitations match what’s needed by the device.
2. Mouse buttons
In addition to being able to move the mouse cursor to any desired location, you need a way to activate mouse buttons to perform actions like left-click, right-click, double-click, drag, and scroll. You could do this with one or more external switches that take the place of the existing mouse buttons. Some hands-free mice include a built-in method for clicking buttons, such as a sip/puff switch or a bite switch. And many include input jacks that allow you to connect your own switches to control the buttons.
Another common option is to use a dwell to perform a mouse click. With the dwell option, holding the mouse cursor steady for a set amount of time (about 1 second) automatically triggers a mouse click. This means that you don’t have to physically activate a switch, but you do have to wait for the dwell time to expire and to hold the cursor fairly steady during that time. The exact dwell time is usually adjustable to suit your needs and preference.
You can also activate the buttons virtually, through a software interface. This might be an add-on piece of software, such as Dragger, Point-N-Click, or SmartClick. Or it might come with the hands-free mouse or your operating system, such as the eye control launchpad in Windows 10. These generally provide a little tool palette that gives all the mouse button options. You first click on the desired option (either with a dwell or a switch hit), then the next click you make will perform that option. These software interfaces are specific for particular platforms (usually Windows), so be sure to choose one that works on your platform.
You can usually combine these button-activation methods if desired, to come up with a workflow that best meets your needs.
3. Required hardware components
Does the hands-free mouse include a hardware device of any kind, such as a sensor, a desktop unit, a wireless receiver, etc.? Will you be using any external switches to activate the mouse buttons? Those count as hardware components, too. Most available systems have at least one hardware component, but there are a few, such as the Camera Mouse, that can be 100% software on computers that already have a webcam.
4. Wired or wireless connections (or both)?
Consider the connections between you and any hardware component, as well as between the hardware components and the host computer. Pay particular attention to the connections for anything you need to interact with directly, such as any wearable used for cursor control or external switch used for mouse buttons. A wired-to-you connection means that there is some sort of physical cable between you and your workstation. A wireless connection might transmit a signal using Bluetooth or radio frequency. (If there is no hardware device, then there is no connection — this would be completely wireless.)
Which is better for you depends on your situation. A wired-to-you connection usually requires a bit more setup before each use, and might mean that you’ll need someone to help you connect the cabling. On the other hand, wireless connections are sometimes temperamental and less consistent than a wired connection. Keep in mind that you may be able to convert a wired connection to a wireless connection using a wireless interface.
5. Requires a “wearable”?
Many devices require some sort of “wearable” on the body site that is being used to control the mouse cursor. Or, if you are using speech recognition, you might need to wear a microphone headset for best recognition accuracy. This may not be a big deal, depending on your situation and personal preference, but it is important to know what is required and how it will fit in to your lifestyle. The need for a wearable can affect independent use, portability, and robustness, as described further below.
6. Requires something in front of your face?
Most chin- or mouth-controlled mice use a special joystick that is mounted close to your face. Some users don’t mind this at all, and prefer the fact that this setup can allow them to use the device completely independently and without wearing anything. Other people don’t like having something near their face, or have trouble getting their position consistently right with respect to the mounted device.
Mounting might be required for some options, which can require some problem solving, occasional adjustments, and may make portability more of a challenge. For devices that have any hardware components, consider if those components need to be placed in a specific location for effective use. The picture of the Jouse3 above shows a mounting solution that places the joystick in a location where the user can reliably and comfortably use it. With a rigid photography-type mount, this can be a good solution for situations where the joystick can be permanently placed for use with the same computer.
Will the system work on the computer platform(s) you use? A hand-free mouse that is USB Plug and Play should work on any platform that can use a USB mouse, such as Windows, Mac OS X, Chrome OS (Chromebook), Android, or Linux. The same is true for Bluetooth devices.
A word about iPads and iPhones: When we originally wrote this post in 2018, there was no mouse support at all for iPads and iPhones. Now, in November 2019, it is possible to use a USB or Bluetooth mouse with iOS 13 (hands-free or otherwise). The mouse cursor is essentially a remote fingertip, so it’s not the kind of pixel-level resolution you get with other platforms, but it is a potentially powerful alternative to touching the screen directly. See this article on using a mouse with your iPad for some good info on the setup and caveats. (There are also some non-mouse ways to use iOS devices in a hands-free way, but that’s outside the scope of this post.)
Considerations: User requirements
So those are some key considerations about the hands-free mouse itself: its basic features and how it works. Now let’s look at considerations that relate to your individual requirements.
What are the main tasks that you use the mouse for? Is it mainly for clicking on buttons, links, and other targets? Will you run your computer’s desktop with it (mostly basic clicks but also requiring dragging, resizing, right-click, double-click)? How about text entry? You could enter text by using the mouse to select items from an on-screen keyboard, but perhaps you have another text entry method that you prefer, one that doesn’t use a mouse. What about drawing or graphics work, or anything that requires fairly high precision movements of the mouse cursor?
Make sure the cursor control and mouse button methods will allow you to do what you need to do quickly and accurately. Yes, all hands-free mice perform mouse functions, but some are more suited to certain kinds of tasks than others. For example, dictating a voice command like “Press Enter” to submit a form might be quicker than moving the mouse cursor into the Submit button and clicking on it. But drawing shapes or lines by voice might be cumbersome and slow. You might even consider the possibility of combining different hands-free mice, so you can use different ones for different tasks.
10. Potential for 100% independent use
How important is it to you to show up at your computer workstation and just start using it, with no help from anyone else? If 100% independence is essential or very important, then pay close attention to the requirements for wearables, mounting, and electronic connections. You’d want to be sure that any wearable required is easy for you to don and doff yourself, or is so tiny and light (like the reflective dot) that you can have it on all day. If any mounting is required, be sure that it is easy for you to get into the correct position relative to the mount, and that the mounting system stays stable while you use the device. And most likely you would want a wireless connection (or no needed connection) between you and the device, so that there’s nothing you have to plug in when you want to use it.
Do you need to use the system on multiple computers? For example, maybe you use one computer at school or work, and another one at home. If so, will it be possible to get a separate hands-free mouse for each computer (assuming the computers are known in advance), or does a single device need to be moved from computer to computer?
Note that this consideration doesn’t apply only to hands-free mice that use a physical hardware device. A software-only solution like the Smyle Mouse could be downloaded and installed on multiple computers, but check the software licensing model to see if this will work for you. For the Smyle Mouse, you’ll need to purchase a separate license for every computer you use it on, which at $499 each could get expensive very quickly or keep you from using computers that don’t already have it installed.
Robustness includes issues that affect whether the hands-free mouse will keep working smoothly over time and in various situations. Some issues that affect robustness include:
Positioning: How “touchy” is it to set up? If it requires you to be in just the right spot to work correctly, consider whether that is a realistic expectation in real life. If it is a mounted solution, does the device stay in the right location during use, or does it drift to a new spot over time, changing the functionality of the device?
Environment: If this is a camera-based or optical device, will it work well in all lighting situations? If there are limitations for lighting, are those acceptable? Is it reasonable to maintain a line-of-sight between yourself and the optical device? For speech recognition, will you be working in a quiet enough area for it to work well? Will it be appropriate to speak commands out loud over and over in your environment?
Maintenance: Any batteries required? Does that matter to you? (Personally, for some reason, I cannot deal responsibly with things that use batteries, but maybe that’s no problem for you.) Will it be easy to keep clean? If there are cables, will they be out of harm’s way? If it is wireless, is there a little receiver piece that you might lose track of?
13. Cognitive load
How much learning and thinking is required to use this system? Ideally, using your mouse should be completely transparent; you don’t have to think about it, you just do it. It doesn’t get in the way of the task you are actually trying to do on the computer.
Cognitive load is a complex topic, and it’s not always easy to predict how much learning and thinking something involves. But you might expect higher cognitive load with a hands-free mouse that requires you to memorize specific commands or gestures, or uses a sequence of steps to move the cursor. This cognitive load may shrink or even disappear with practice, but it is something to keep in mind (no pun intended).
To sum up
Writing about this has reminded me that there are many considerations for what seems at first to be a fairly straightforward access need. And again, the importance of these requirements depends on your specific situation. It may not be possible to anticipate all possible issues before purchase, but some time spent thinking things through is likely to be time well-spent, particularly when considering the purchase of a more expensive option.
Stay tuned (or subscribe): Our next post will provide a list of available hands-free mice, with notes on how they stack up on these various considerations. [Update Nov 29: the post on 25 hands-free mice is now available.]
What other considerations are important to you? Let us know!