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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ever Wonder About The Paths Traced By Your Mouse Cursor? Wonder No More!

A Russian programmer named Anatoly Zenkov has come up with a simple Java program called Mousepath that traces the path your mouse cursor takes as you move it while accomplishing stuff on your computer. The resulting diagrams are quite something to look at! Sometimes, they can be quite insightful and show you which parts of the computer screen you move your mouse over most frequently, where you park it most often, which parts of the screen you visit least often, etc.

Initially, I was a little suspicious of the application. After all, an application that records where my mouse goes could very well have a little extra that records what I type on my keyboard too. But after googling and yahoo'ing a few times, I convinced myself that it was really a harmless application.

The application requires no installation. You download the zip file the executable comes compressed in, extract the executable from it, and then start it up. The application runs in all versions of Windows. The MacOS executable can be found here. The application comes with no help files or anything else extraneous. As soon as you start running it, you are presented with a blank white screen. As you move your mouse, the cursor starts tracing lines on this white screen.

Obviously, the application would be quite useless if it only recorded your mouse movements when you have the application maximized. In fact, the application does not expect you to use it that way. Once you start it, minimize the application and go about your normal business, using the computer as you normally would. After some time, when you are curious, restore the application to the screen and see where your mouse has been. You may be surprised!

When you want to save the image, hit S on your keyboard and a TIF image of what is on the Mousepath screen will be saved to same folder as you ran Mousepath from. In addition to this, you can clear the mouse tracks and start from scratch by hitting R. By default, Mousepath draws dots of various diameters at points where the mouse sits for a long time. The diameter of each dot is proportional to the amount of time your mouse cursor stayed there without moving. I found these dots sometimes got so large that they obscured significant portions of my mouse paths, so I turned them off. You do that by hitting D. Those, in a nutshell, are the only controls in the program! Simplicity itself, don't you think?!!
Mousepath image with dotsExample of a mousepath image generated in about an hour of websurfing

Obviously, you need to have Java installed on your computer to use this application. Also, the saving of the mouse tracks only as a TIF image is a little inconvenient. But you can easily open the image in a good image manipulation program like Irfanview to convert it into any format you need it in. I also found that the window that the application opens can not be resized or even truly maximized. It occupies your entire desktop when open, and you can only close or minimize it. I also found that the lack of an option to save images with and without the dots is not provided. So, you can't compare mouse-tracks with and without the dots just to see what is hidden under the dots. If you want to see every move your mouse makes, you have to turn off the dots, and then you have no idea where your mouse sat for long periods of time.

Mousepath image without dotsMouse tracks from another hour of reading email and news, but with the dots turned off

Also, the first time you minimize it after opening it, automatically restarts the mouse tracks. This does not happen with subsequent minimizings, but be careful of this one because you don't want to play around with the mouse to create some interesting tracks only to have them all erased when you minimize it without saving it! You may be better off minimizing and restoring the application once as soon as you start running it so that you are not caught off-guard by this bug.

The final images produced by this application are on a plain white background representing your desktop. There is nothing in the image to show you where your application windows were and how they were arranged. So, it relies on your memory to interpret why the mouse patterns are the way they are, based on the applications you were working on, what parts of what windows were located in what positions, etc. The insights you derive from the mouse tracks are dependent on your ability to superimpose the mouse tracks from this program on a picture of your desktop with all the application windows you were using, in your mind's eye!

You can see some mouse cursor tracings created by the author of the program at his homepage. The novelty of this application will probably wear off over time, but for now, it is fun and interesting! Hope you enjoy it too!

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