It's easy on the fingers

Sensors: A company develops an optic-utilizing keyboard to help those with repetitive-stress pain.

February 07, 2002|By Sally McGrane | Sally McGrane,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Two years ago, Wayne Westerman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware, had a problem. His dissertation was almost due, and he couldn't type more than a page a day because of repetitive-stress problems that had begun when he was an undergraduate. "I couldn't stand to press the buttons anymore," he said.

For Westerman (who ultimately did receive his doctorate), work also provided a solution. His dissertation in the university's electrical and computer engineering department involved the development of a keyless keyboard, one that did not require the same degree of finger pressure.

This new approach to entering data allowed Westerman, now a visiting assistant professor in the same department, to finish his dissertation and eventually to be free of symptoms.

Westerman and his co-developer, John G. Elias, a professor in the department, are now trying to market their technology to others whose injuries might prevent them from using a conventional computer keyboard. The TouchStream Mini from their company, FingerWorks (www.fingerworks.com), uses a thin sensor array that recognizes fingers as they move over the keyboard. The sensors monitor disturbances in the touch pad's electric field, not pressure, so typing requires only a very light touch.

Unlike similar touch pads on personal digital assistants or on laptops, which only recognize input from a single point, this surface can process information from multiple points, facilitating faster typing.

"We [had] thought there would already be something out there that would do multi-finger input," Westerman said. "We ended up building the whole thing from scratch."

The TouchStream technology also replaces computer mouse movements with gestures across the screen. To issue commands, the user runs different finger combinations over the pad. For "cut," the thumb and middle finger are pulled together in a snipping motion, and for "open," the thumb and next three fingers are drawn in a circle on the pad, as if they are opening a jar. ("Close" is the opposite motion.)

Because the software distinguishes between a typing movement and a mouse or command gesture, the user can give mouse commands anywhere on the pad, even right on top of the keyboard area.

"A lot of electrical engineers come at the problem of input and go immediately to voice recognition," Westerman said. Because he had studied piano for 12 years, he said, using the technology with multiple fingers made sense to him.

FingerWorks is just beginning to offer commercial products for sale at its Web site. The Touch Stream Mini is $199, and the iGesture Pad, which supplants the mouse and number pad, is $189.

Graciela Perez, manager of the lab ergonomics program at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, bought one of the FingerWorks keyboards for the lab's ergonomics-demonstration room. "The whole concept is really good," she said. Although the keyboard is not the right size for a person with small hands, she added, "people really like it."

The FingerWorks keyboard, she said, "forces you to relax. It appreciably reduces force and repetitive issues and encourages dynamic motion."

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