Where Microsoft Designers Found Inspiration for Silicone Mouse

Courtesy Microsoft

In Microsoft's model shop, Young Kim's team built around 80 prototypces of the Arc Touch Mouse before settling on the final one.

When Young Kim was dreaming up his award-winning mouse, the industrial design manager for Microsoft found inspiration in an unlikely place: Crate & Barrel.

The Arc Touch Mouse is a thin, black bar with a tail made of sueded silicone. The user packs it flat and then curves it to create a regular, ergonomic mouse when needed.

In developing it, Kim’s team perused housewares stores examining things like silicone oven mitts to find the right varieties of the pliable material. They also went to Home Depot and toy stores to get ideas about materials they could use to build prototypes.

The $60 mouse is largely made up of two different pieces of silicone sandwiched together, with the more flexible one on top and the stiffer one on the bottom. This way, when a user curves the mouse, the top bends without causing the bottom to buckle.

The emphasis on craftsmanship at Microsoft is a change from an earlier penny-pinching era when designers had a harder time convincing executives to pony up for top-quality materials, said Kim, the company’s ninth industrial engineer. Microsoft now has 30.

This shift is part of a larger campaign by Microsoft to find its design soul as it revamps the look of its products, such as Windows. The company is losing PC customers to Apple’s iPad and is trying to recover ground in the mobile market with a new-look Windows Phone.

Courtesy Microsoft

Microsoft's Arc Touch Mouse flattens when stored and can be curved when needed for use.

The Arc Touch Mouse, which took about 20 months to develop, has been honored with a 2011 International Design Excellence Award and a Red Dot Award from Germany’s Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen.

Still, for all its awards, the mouse isn’t seen as moving the needle on Microsoft’s larger issues. But it does point to the software giant’s focus on design.

Kim’s team built about 80 different models to find the right size, degree of curvature and amount of resistance needed to curve and flatten the mouse (in order to keep users from accidentally collapsing it during use). There can be no more than 0.1 millimeter of space between the two pieces of silicone. Any more and Microsoft requires the factory to discard the piece and start over.

“It’s not even an option these days to have mediocre quality,” he said. “That’s something my team obsesses over.”

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