Berkeley company creates world’s first foot-controlled computer device

Bjorn Hartmann, above, believes the interface device will not be popular among typical computer users.
Jeffrey Joh/Staff
Bjorn Hartmann, above, believes the interface device will not be popular among typical computer users.

A private Berkeley company is making strides to push computers toward a hands-free era with the announcement of its new product — the world’s first foot-controlled interface device.

Developed nearby at the offices of Keith McMillen Instruments on Fourth Street between Channing Way and Bancroft Way, this device allows the user to open and close software applications, enter text, zoom in and out, browse between different folders and control the mouse and other operating system functions — all without lifting a finger.

The SoftStep Foot Controller is operated with KeyWorx software and can be used by those of the disabled community, gamers, programmers and data entry professionals, among many other specialized groups, but was initially designed for an alternative purpose.

According to Jon Short, vice president of sales for the company, the device was originally developed for musicians in recording studios as a way for them to integrate music with their computer while keeping their hands on the instrument.

“We ended up getting requests from people that wanted to do additional things in collaboration with the SoftStep Foot Controller and the computer, so Keith McMillen, (owner of KMI,) and some other people implemented KeyWorx in conjunction with SoftStep Foot Controller, which allows you to control functions with your feet,” Short said.

The installation of the KeyWorx software allows users to program the controller with specific commands.

The device is designed with 10 pressure- and direction-sensitive keys, including a navigation pad, and weighs only 1.3 pounds, allowing the option of portability for its users.

“It’s a way to transfer tasks to your feet while working alongside your keyboard and mouse,” Short said.

The device can also be an assisting technology that could reduce the strain from common computer-related injuries such as Carpal tunnel syndrome.

“I doubt that the device will replace the mouse or touch-based interfaces but will serve as a complement,” said Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft Research. “Most people will view the device in terms of how we can use our feet at the same time.”

Although the device can be beneficial for specialized groups, Bjorn Hartmann, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, said he doubts its popularity among everyday computer users.

“Many of these devices are for specific niches, but it will be hard to be an interface for everyone,” Hartmann said.

Hartmann said he attributes this to the product’s potential learning curve. A foot-based interface may incur a potential challenge, because most people do not experience foot-based precision in their everyday lives, he said.

It takes hundreds of thousands of hours to be truly skilled in a new interface device, Hartmann said, especially if the device requires precision in an area many people are unfamiliar with.

“Human beings will invest the time to learn a new interface device, if the payback is substantial enough,” Buxton said. “It is not that different from operating a car. A driver must work the gas and brake without looking down at their feet.”

Buxton said that the device’s creation is moving toward a society in which computers become a larger part of everyday life.

“This is an example where computing is becoming ubiquitous,” he said. “The more devices in our repertoire, the more likely we can approach a jack-of-all-trades situation.”