Tyler Robertson

My hunt for the perfect trackball mouse

Monday, October 24, 2022

My childhood memories are generally very hazy, with the exception of two: the day we brought my newborn baby sister home from the hospital (my earliest memory), and the trackball mouse.

The details around the mouse are fuzzy: I was at a family friend's house, we were playing either Math Blasters or Mario & Luigi (the DOS clone of Super Mario World). I was either five or six years old. And there was this giant trackball mouse they had. I could fit both my tiny hands on it, and it had these wonderfully grippy little divots in the ball, letting my fingers get just enough grip to spin it easily. You could feel how hefty it was, like a bocce ball that had been repurposed for computing.

Recently I've been trying to track down (pardon the pun) this mouse again — partially to bring a little joy to my desk, and partially because I've gotten sick of using a trackpad with my work MacBook. But on investigation, the mouse I remember is nowhere to be found. The closest that comes up is the Microsoft EasyBall:

Microsoft EasyBall

The EasyBall was around in 1997, making the timing just right, and it had a 4-inch diameter trackball, which also feels right to me. But the texture isn't there. The trackball I remember was grippy, and textured in a way that could only work with the older mechanical-style mouse — modern trackballs use optical tracking, which would definitely be thrown off by any bumps. My guess is that it had to have been a custom build: both my dad and his friend (my childhood friend's dad) were crafty enough that it might have been an EasyBall with something like a bocce or cricket ball swapped in. The trouble with that is that no one who would have had knowledge of that build is around anymore, so I may be the only living person who remembers this mouse. 😓

I think what happens next is this: I'm going to have to build the mouse. Either I can grab an EasyBall off of eBay, and find a way to convert the connector to USB (or even better, bluetooth) along with finding a couple alternative trackballs to swap in (my guess is a cricket ball), or I can try building something from scratch. In theory, I could use Lego bricks for a chassis, connected to a Raspberry Pi W via some rotary encoders, to send basic x/y movement to a computer. But either option will take time, and maybe a bit more desk space for things like a soldering iron.

In the meantime, I was able to expense a new mouse through work, to help sate my thirst for balls (there, I said it, you're welcome). It's the wireless version of the Kensington Expert Mouse, and it fits my current setup quite nicely:

My current desk setup

While it's no EasyBall, the 55mm trackball is just about the right size for some other interesting modding opportunities. For example, I could swap in a standard billiards ball, like Rihanna's character in Ocean's 8 (which may or may not be why I wanted this mouse):

Rihanna as Nine Ball in Ocean's 8

I don't think the brighter spots on the billiards balls would play well with the optical sensors (for the same reason your standard mouse works better on a black mousepad), but hey, if you can't have fun with your balls, what's the point?