After losing one too many games in WarCraft III (grumble, stupid kids who play all day, grumble), I decided to buckle down and get a Microsoft Sidewinder Strategic Commander. Even with Microsoft's pictures and marketese, it's hard to accurately describe this thing. Basically, it looks like a giant mouse permanently affixed to a stationary platform.
There are no less than eleven buttons and one switch on the Commander. Three of the buttons and the switch act as modifiers for six main buttons, so you have 72 possible inputs. These 72 commands can be programmed using "profiles" for an infinite number of permutations. Add that the entire base can be pushed in all directions and tilted on a plane, and it's easy to get overwhelmed with the interface. However, I submit that it's quite ingenious.
The Commander was originally designed for a very specific PC game type: strategy games. Often during a PC strategy game, you'll find your left hand hunting key combinations to help bolster your play. That's where the Commander comes in. You can program hotkeys and macros into it, and instead of your hand dancing across the keyboard, it stays put on the Commander. One hand mouse, the other Commander. Only your fingers move.
This original use works quite well. However, many thought there could be more to the Commander. First came other game types. First-person shooters like the Quake and Unreal series, for example, worked well with multiple bindings. Flight sims benefited from the built-in swivel and tilting.
Then, people started realizing that the Commander could, with a little effort, replace the keyboard for all applications. Why not configure some of the buttons to act as normal keyboard keys?
There are many downloadable profiles now available on the web that take advantage of this. With 72 combinations, you're very close to a 101-key keyboard. Changing profiles is a snap, so you can quickly get up to the 101 combinations necessary. Some have made traditional profiles (letters in order of the buttons and qwerty), while others have played with more exotic and unconventional "keyboards". All the time, one hand remains on your mouse, while the other on the Commander, typing.
After some time, you begin to notice that you were previously wasting a lot of energy. Most people keep one hand on the mouse while browsing through today's GUI interfaces, while the other remains dormatn. Occasionally, your primary hand comes off your mouse to work with the dormant hand on the keyboard, but this is relatively rare. With something like the Commander, you can actually have both hands working simultaneously, one clicking and the other typing.
I admit this isn't easy at first. I had to "train" my brain to fully type normally while working the mouse at the same time. Once I got used to this, though, I found many of my daily computing tasks became effortless. In a lot of ways, the Commander is similar to the "chord" devices that were demonstrated in early mouse films - a quick way to run common commands without resorting to the keyboard.
There are some innovations to the traditional chord setup, however. Namely, the fact that the second "keyboard" tilts on its own axis, and essentially acts as its own mouse, means you can have two hands controlling two different planes separately, along with entering keyboard commands, clicking the mouse buttons, scrolling the mouse wheel, etc. If this sounds initially confusing, well... it is. I liken it to relearning how to ride a bike or driving a car. Imagine your car suddenly had two steering wheels, one for traditional steering and another to act as a modified accelerator? Would the benefits outweigh the retraining costs?
One can argue that this can be taken too far. "We're only using two hands? What about our other appendages? Certainly, our feet can be doing something!" I agree. However, in a computer world always going faster, it's nice to find dormant devices, like your other hand, that can be used in non-traditional ways.