Long Live TrackPoint
Originally Posted April 2015
Today the ThinkPad is a brand synonymous with business grade, reliable, solid looking black laptops which could be used as a shield in times of crisis. When the design was first developed, the great industrial designer Richard Sapper drove ideas and produced concepts for IBM on which the ThinkPad is still based today. One of his original concepts can be seen here in a post by David Hill: http://blog.lenovo.com/en/blog/richard-sapper-the-origins-of-the-thinkpad-keyboard
The red in the ThinkPad logo today is representative of the TrackPoint, the pointing device which sits boldly in the centre of ThinkPad keyboards. The TrackPoint is intrinsic to the overall iconic look of ThinkPad and it is a source of pride for a lot of ThinkPad users. On the occasions where a tech journalist or blogger might cast negativity towards the TrackPoint they often find it is a bit like poking a bear when the fans assertively respond.
Occasionally being an angry TrackPoint defender myself I wondered how much I could find out about the TrackPoint and its history. That is what lead me to the honor of communicating with David Hill (http://www.dwhilldesign.com/biography.php) and Ted Selker (http://www.ted.selker.com/index.htm) both of whom have had a great deal of involvement in the ThinkPad history.
I had the pleasure of chatting with David Hill over the phone early one morning and was able to ask him a few questions around the ThinkPad and I have paraphrased his answers below:
Q1) Might I please ask, when the original ThinkPad design was being outlined was their much debate over how mouse control would be integrated?
Richard Sapper had a great input on the ThinkPad design and he discovered a pointing device that Ted Selker and Joe Rutledge were working on, they it had located in a desktop keyboard.
Q2) Could I please ask why Red was chosen as the colour of the TrackPoint
Richard Sapper wanted to call attention to the TrackPoint. However red was somewhat of a challenge to get approved by IBM. At the time of the time of the design work, Red was the colour reserved for server and mainframe room Emergency Power Off switches and only EPO switches. With a little persistence and some clever creative thinking by Mr Sapper the colour IBM Magenta was created.
(Authors note: having looked at original ThinkPad 700 Series machines, IBM Magenta is as red as its possible to be without actually being red, confirming for me Richard Sapper was indeed a genius!)
Q3) From time to time reviewers and social media commentators are dismissive of the TrackPoint considering it dated or unnecessary.
David gave a great analogy of the Trackpoint, he likened it to a manual car transmission, it takes a little more getting used to than an automatic transmission but once you have the feel for it you have a greater degree of control of the driving experience. Similarly, the TrackPoint offers a much more accurate control of the mouse pointer than other devices. Those who comment negatively are unlikely to have given it a try.
Q4) Could I please ask if you recall any major changes and possible engineering challenges since the original implementation?
The original TrackPoint cap was smooth, Ted Selker worked to improve traction and developed the Cat Tongue cap. This cap improved precision but could cause a finger callus from prolonged use. This lead me to start the initiative to produce different designs such as, Soft Dome and Soft Rim. For a time ThinkPads were shipped with a selection of caps allowing customers to choose.
In addition to this from the original pointing device and two buttons a third button was added to give much improved scroll experience. The third button, which enables scrolling, was first placed below the two other buttons. I felt this was problematic since it took up valuable internal real estate and it was nearly impossible to reach with your thumb conveniently. I moved it between the other two buttons using a keystone shape. This shape allowed for effective button sizes and mapped to the different direction of movement. I first had the idea when I was working on a Butterfly 2 concept, with the late Dr. Karidis, that had no palm rest and thus no space for a third button. Necessity is often the mother of invention.
I was also able to reach out to Ted Selker who is still very enthusiastic about the TrackPoint and he was kind enough to answer some questions I had via email.
Q1) I believe you had the idea of a pointing stick or navigation device in a keyboard before you joined IBM or the ThinkPad was on the drawing board. Do you recall what triggered the idea?
I was reading the JUST published HCI book by Card and Moran in 1983… I saw on one page where it seemed that the time to reach for a mouse was like a second.
I had looked at data in English and Engebarts 1967 paper about the fact that a kneebar was better than a mouse for the first 15 minutes… i thought well, though a kneebar is bad because there is now detailed representation of the knee in the motor or sensor homunculus,,, till a person gets good at using the mouse, but the kneebar doesn’t take your hands off the keyboard.
Q2) During development or implementation what do you feel were the largest obstacles to overcome?
OMG…so many things…
making a joystick make selections as fast as a mouse against theory that said this was impossible!
making a good way to touch it without slipping
making a good way of selecting with buttons
finding a place that it didn’t get struck by fingers
Q3) How does the TrackPoint we know now, compare for look and feel with the device you first envisaged?
I started with an erasure under the space bar on a joystick (1984)
Then a joystick under a key (1984 at Stanford and again in 1989 at IBM)
Then a rod shaped metal thing (1989)
Then a cup shaped piece of plastic (1990)
Then a special 55 Durometer bending part with an air suspension and a latex grippy top (1992)
(and 50 worse idea versions it contended with for a top)
Then a Santoprene version that was mas produced but not delivered to customers
(because they would have had to kill me first)
Then a 55 Durometer Buytl rubber top (product announce)
Then a fish scale skin top 1994 prototype (and many other cool tops)
Then a nylon pieces sticking out of the top
Then using the cup shaped grip idea in that we first used in a handle controller for airtrafic control
And an alternative large surface convex top that also reduces pressure on the finger
The buttons started as small making them bigger and requiring less pressure imprpoved user pointing performance!
A generation of ThinkPads included locking buttons that I designed for people with special needs, press to select eliminated the need for these.
Then a press to select , press to magnify, press to scroll gesture language built in.
Then a middle button for treating the stick as a second device
The algorithms changed and improved substantially from Trackpoint II in 1993 to Trackpoint III in 1995
The newer Trackpoint III ( has negative inertia which makes it 15% faster at selection than Trackpoint II… this feature models starting and stopping and enhances them (kind a like
ABS brakes do for stopping a car)
Q4) Are you aware of the staunch following of die hard fans the Trackpoint has today?
I am deeply proud of that and only wait for the day that I might improve it some more
Q5) Many fans debate and argue with others the accuracy and efficiency of the TrackPoint over other input devices. How would you best summarize how accurate and efficient the TrackPoint is?
Careful experiments were done in labs in NY, Florida, TX, NC, Japan and later CA…that all showed that people could learn to use the TrackPoint better than a trackpad in less than a minute if they tried :
Trackpoint is 20% faster for pointing than a trackpad
Trackpoint is at least 20% faster than a mouse for point and type (text editing like things)
Trackpoint could be made much better for drawing and for new displays and so on… i want to do it still.
Q6) I have used the TrackPoint for everything up to and including photo editing. Are you aware of any implementation or uses of the TrackPoint which might seem out of the ordinary?
We used it for lapersocopy at Johns Hopkins (this reduced dexterity problems caused by tremor in surgeons hands controlling a camera inside a patient)
We used it for selecting ground traffic control of airplanes (saved a 30 million dollar contract)
Blind people said they loved it because it didn’t require them to put their finger in a place determined by the cursor or mouse.
People with prosthetics said they liked it because it reduces tremor too
Old people liked it because it reduced the effects of tremor on cursor control
I used it for its 16 bit a/d (Analog to Digital) converter to teach science …we have to talk about the science wand
I have to say thank you to David Hill and Ted Selker for being so forthcoming with details. I gained so much more information form them both but had to trim this down for post length. Also a big Thank you to Gavin O’Hara for his assistance with this post.