Why Hands-free Mice?
A hands-free mouse allows you to perform computer mouse functions without using your hands. If you have a physical limitation that makes it difficult or impossible to use a traditional mouse with your hands, a hands-free mouse can be critical to accessing a computer comfortably and efficiently. The key is to make an informed choice to make sure your hands-free mouse truly meets your needs. In our last post, we described 13 considerations to think about when choosing a hands-free mouse. Here, we examine 25 specific hands-free mice that are available and see how they stack up on those considerations.
Before we begin
We’ve structured this guide by grouping the available hands-free mice into 6 main categories, or families, based on their basic approach to controlling the mouse cursor. We’ll first review the main features for each family, then delve into specific products within each family. These include products that can replace a traditional mouse for computing platforms such as Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. (Those that are USB Plug and Play will work with platforms like Android and Chrome OS, as well.)
With so many features and products to sift through, it’s been a challenge to decide how to best present the information. I’ve tried to include the key points directly in this post, while giving links to more detailed tables and handouts that you can download for future reference. The focus is on objective features; this is not a subjective review of how well each product works (perhaps that could be a future post, and if you want to share your experiences with any of these devices, please post a comment below).
Please note that this listing is meant to be thorough, but there’s no guarantee that it is exhaustive. And the goal is not to recommend one family or device over another. The purpose is to provide useful information to help you narrow down the choices to determine products that may meet your specific needs.
6 Families of Hands-free Mice
OK, enough preliminaries — let’s get started! We focus on the following 6 families of hands-free mice that can be used to directly control all mouse functions:
- Lip/chin joysticks: this is a hardware device that allows you to move the mouse cursor and control mouse buttons with your chin or lips. This means the joystick must be positioned near your face, but there is nothing to wear and no wired connections between you and the device.
- Wearable sensors: with this approach, you wear a sensor (usually on your head), and as you move, the motion of that sensor controls the mouse cursor. Beyond this basic commonality, products in this group are pretty varied, differing on their form factor, connectivity, platform compatibility, mounting requirements, and other aspects.
- Wearable target trackers: with these devices, you wear a small reflective dot (often placed as a sticker on the forehead), and a special sensor unit tracks the motion of the dot to control the mouse cursor as you move. There is no wired connection between you and the device.
- Webcam face trackers: these use a standard webcam to track motion of your face or a facial feature. So there is no hardware gizmo to mount or control.
- Eye trackers: these allow the direction of your eyegaze to control the mouse cursor, using a sensor unit that tracks light reflected off your eyes. You “click” by dwelling for a set amount of time (i.e., holding your gaze on a particular spot). These are currently available for Windows only.
- Speech recognition systems: with this approach, you control the mouse using voice commands.
The table below presents some of the key features of each family. The features listed are those that are common to all devices within the family. (We’ll describe features that differ within each family later in the post.) The table also lists specific products available within each family, and a representative photo. (There is nothing “special” or recommended about the pictured device; it just provides a good image to represent its family.)
|Family||Key Shared Features||Available Products|
ED Air Mouse
|Wearable Target Trackers|
|Webcam Face trackers|
Windows Speech Recognition
Mac OS X Dictation
For more details, you can view a PDF comparing these 6 families of hands-free mice or open the table in a google sheet. (Note that some hands-free mouse options are outside the scope of this post, such as foot mice, mouthstick-tapping on a touchscreen, switch-based cursor control, or using MouseKeys with a mouthstick.)
So, what’s the “best” family?
It’s difficult to make general statements about the relative suitability of each family, since that strongly depends on the specific context of the user, task, and environment. For example, if you need or want the ability to make very fine, high-resolution movements of the mouse cursor, similar to what is possible with a traditional mouse, then the chin joystick or either of the wearable families should be high on your list. If you sometimes need to use a public Windows computer (one that you don’t own or control), knowing how to use the built-in Windows Speech Recognition as a mouse might be useful in a pinch, or you might consider one of the more portable hands-free mice within the wearable sensors family. If controlled head movements are difficult for you, but eye movements are not, the eye tracking options would become more appealing.
One suggestion is to review the considerations post and see which ones are important for your situation. Note that it may be fruitful to combine approaches: for example, if you are already using speech recognition for text entry, you might use the more efficient mouse commands to click by voice (e.g., “Close window”), in combination with a more direct cursor control method (like a head tracker) for functions like dragging.
Keep in mind that devices within each family can differ substantially, so read on to learn more about the features of specific products. For each family, we summarize some main points, and provide you with a comparison table that contains more details. Each table is available as an image, a PDF, or a spreadsheet, which hopefully will cover a wide range of uses and accessibility needs. At the very end, you can download a PDF that includes all the tables in this post. The PDFs and sheets include links to basic info about each product and user manuals/how-to where available.
5 Lip/chin Joysticks
All 5 lip/chin joysticks in our listing are fairly mature products designed specifically for users with physical disabilities. All are USB Plug and Play, which means they will work with any computer platform that supports USB mice, including Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android. All can be customized using the built-in mouse settings in the operating system, and the BJOY Chin and QuadJoy also include setup software for further customization.
One important distinction between lip/chin joysticks is the built-in method for activating the mouse buttons. The IntegraMouse+, Jouse3, and QuadJoy incorporate a sip/puff switch into their joystick, so that a sip action clicks one mouse button, and a puff action clicks the other. In contrast, the BJOY Chin has two circular switch pads, one on either side of the joystick, which can be pressed using the chin or cheek. And the TetraMouse has a second joystick that is devoted to button actions, right next to the joystick for cursor control. Note, too, a large retail price range in this family, from $2,496 for the IntegraMouse+ to $449 for the TetraMouse XA2.
5 Wearable Sensors
These 5 systems have a wide range of features and design refinements, and a wide range of price tags to match. All provide mouse control by controlling a sensor that is typically worn on the head (but can be worn elsewhere if that works better for you). There is no camera or other optical unit involved, so you do not have to maintain a direct line-of-sight to the computer, and the performance is independent of lighting conditions.
The Quha Zono and GlassOuse have perhaps the most thorough and refined designs in this family. GlassOuse is designed to be worn on the head, and comes packaged to be worn like eyeglasses (but without anything in front of the eye). The Zono has more of a headphone-style mount for its sensor, and also has several alternative ways to wear the sensor, such as an eyeglass clip, a neckband, and a universal kit for sensor locations off the head such as the foot. The Zono can be used with what appears to be a unique breath switch (the Sento), so you can click by blowing lightly on the switch sensor — no lip contact needed. Mounting for the other systems in this family is less refined and does not integrate switches for the buttons.
The GlassOuse and the Zono are wireless, requiring no physical connection between the sensor unit that you wear and the computer that you are controlling. This means that both the GlassOuse and the Zono lend themselves to fully independent use, if you do not mind wearing the sensor unit around. If that won’t work for you, consider the Quha Nemo model, which includes a docking station designed to let you put on and remove the sensor headband independently.
One last note for wearable sensors. The sensor used for the eeZee Switch must be tilted, not rotated, to move the cursor. So the motion used will be quite different in the head-controlled case; to move right, you would tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder, instead of rotating your head to the right. This is a less intuitive and more difficult movement for many people, but for some it may be just right.
4 Wearable Target Trackers
With this approach, there is a wearable, but it is small, usually just a reflective dot that you can stick on your forehead. The sensing is done by a separate unit mounted on or near your computer that tracks light reflected off the dot. So this does require a line-of-sight to the computer, and can be sensitive to lighting conditions. The wearable is smaller and less conspicuous than those in the wearable sensor family, so this family may be a bit more amenable to fully independent use, if you are OK with wearing the reflective dot around.
Note that the AccuPoint was designed to provide a head-controlled option for people who may have difficulty controlling the other target trackers in this family. If this interests you, you may want to get in touch with Invotek soon; they are phasing out this product, so it will not be available in the long term.
5 Webcam Face Trackers
This family reflects an appealing idea: just use the webcam that many people already have, and let it track your face in order to control the mouse cursor. Yes, it does work, and it’s amazing that it works at all.
However, a webcam really isn’t designed for this application, so don’t expect the mouse control to be as precise as it is with the more direct sensor methods described above. For example, with the Camera Mouse, I found that I needed a medium-high sensitivity setting in order to reach all the corners of my laptop screen, but then I had trouble keeping the mouse cursor steady once I got near my target. Note that this experience was with one of the free options; while the free offering really lowers the barrier to trying it (all you do is install the software and you’re all set), it’s possible that performance would be different with one of the paid options. The paid options (at least SmyleMouse and VivoMouse for sure) also provide prompt support via email, at least in my experience.
For this family (and for all of these hands-free mice, actually), the best suggestion is to find out whether a product meets your needs on paper, then try it out yourself to really get a feel for it. This post can help you with the former, but not the latter, unfortunately.
3 Eye Trackers
All 3 eye trackers in this family are made by Tobii. The main difference is that the 4C is made for mainstream gaming applications, while the PCEye offerings are specifically designed as assistive technology for people with physical impairments. Thus the PCEye trackers come with Tobii’s Windows Control software, which provides some enhanced precision via adjustable zoom as well as a palette of desktop shortcuts. These let you perform various repetitive tasks via eyegaze, with a goal of increasing efficiency. Having said that, the inexpensive 4C combined with the Eye Control now built in to Windows 10, may be a viable option for some people. I haven’t been able to find out if there’s a major difference in the precision of control using the PCEye vs the 4C.
3 Speech Recognition Systems
First off, we should note that speech recognition systems are mainly designed to use speech for text entry, rather than mouse functions. However, each speech recognition system listed here does have some ability to perform mouse functions.
In particular, the two Windows solutions include the ability to move the mouse cursor to any location, using the Mouse Grid approach. The “Mouse Grid” command divides the screen into 9 numbered sections. You say the number for the desired section, which in turn is divided into 9 numbered square sections. You keep honing in on the location by saying numbers, and once the cursor is in the square where you want it (e.g., square 2), say “Click 2” to click at that spot. A small target may require 4 or 5 number commands to get to the desired spot, but at least this method gives a way to put the cursor exactly where you want it. As far as I can tell, the Mac OS X solution doesn’t provide this feature. (The Dragon product for Mac did provide this, but has been discontinued by the manufacturer, Nuance.)
For clickable targets, it is usually more efficient to use one of two approaches, as compared to using Mouse Grid. First, you can use a built-in command, like “Close window” or “Click Save” (when a button labeled Save is on the screen). You need to learn which ones are available in your speech system, but once you do, you can substitute voice commands for a lot of things that are typically done via mouse.
The second method is more general, using a “Show numbers” command. This labels all clickable items currently on the screen with a small number. Then to click a particular item, just say its number. The speech recognition systems built into Windows as well as Mac OS X both include this “Show numbers” feature. For Dragon NaturallySpeaking, you need to buy and install an add-on to get it, such as Voice Computer or SpeechStart+.
Depending on the tasks you do, you may need another mouse system as a complement to voice control, but the combination can be quite powerful. And it can be handy to have some speech-to-mouse functions available on any Windows or Mac computer that you use, in case you are stuck without your usual equipment.
This post has outlined many of the key features for these 25 hands-free mouse options. You can get all the tables in one PDF file by clicking the button below:
I hope these descriptions and tables are useful as you sift through the options to find options that may fit your specific needs. That’s an important first step, but only a first step.
A common next step when making a purchase decision is to comb through reviews and other public info to learn how well the various options succeed in implementing their stated features. Unfortunately, there just isn’t a lot of that info available for hands-free mice. I wish I could include answers to questions like the following:
- Which lip/chin joystick provides the best mouse cursor control?
- Does the $499 SmyleMouse offer a better experience than the free face trackers?
- Does the SmartNAV provide the same precision as the more expensive TrackerPro and HeadMouse Nano?
- How accurate is Windows Speech Recognition compared to Dragon?
There are a few consumer reviews out there, but not many, and not much formal research, either. Hopefully over time, we as a field can build some understanding of these issues. Please post in the comments if you know of info like this, and/or if you think it would be valuable to try to collect this systematically.
Another key step, once you’ve narrowed the set of options to a few possibilities, is to try each of the candidates before making a final decision. I’m a big advocate of using evidence as a major part of this decision-making process, and in our next post, we’ll look at how to gather useful evidence to choose a hands-free mouse.