Not one for wasting time, former chief engineer at the National Space Centre, Graham Law, spent his lockdown furlough time inventing the world’s lightest joystick/mouse using cutting edge ideas, which will now help people that struggle to use digital devices.
Engineers don’t idle well, so when I was talking to my friend, Barrie Ellis who runs One Switch, an organisation aimed at helping disabled gamers (www.oneswitch.org.uk), he was lamenting the lack of availability of any truly superlight force joystick. It got my attention and would be the engineering challenge to get me through lockdown.
With 3D printing now an established technology I could also use my electronics and software experience to produce something suitable. The resultant device is now available from Celtic Magic (www.celticmagic.org). Known as a ‘Feather’ it is more than twice as sensitive as anything that has previously been available.
But where do engineers start with such a challenge? – with a hot bath!
Yes, a hot bath. It is the best way I’ve found to relax and come up with new ideas. I also had an advantage – I had never designed a joystick before. This meant that I questioned everything, in particular, springs. Just why does a joystick need springs? It is the obvious method of making a joystick return to centre, but when you want to design a joystick for disabled users with very little strength, a spring is something that resists you – and produces friction that requires the user to fight against it. Trivial for able-bodied folks but when every gram counts, springs are a pain.
Let’s use magnets – lots of tiny magnets – that float the joystick. Some magnets push up floating the stick whilst others gently pull down, centering the device. The net force on any bearing can then be close to zero, giving very low friction indeed. It’s not rocket science – or perhaps it was given my job at the time…
The mechanical development was rather tricky and took a large part of 2020 to perfect. The measuring of position using magnetics was another challenge leading to some complicated maths and several more hot baths before that was resolved. Throw in some necessary bureaucracy before it came together, not just as a joystick but a fully featured mouse controller.
With the ability to configure the joystick via a free app and some inputs and outputs you have what is now the Celtic Magic Feather, a device that can be reliably used with the very, very lightest of touches and that, for me as an engineer, is highly satisfying.
The Feather joystick/mouse went through user trials in the first quarter of 2021 and useful new features were added after user feedback. Now it is available from Celtic Magic to anyone that is struggling to use a mouse, trackball or joystick to control their PC, Mac or tablet or even play games on the Microsoft Adaptive Controller.