TAP...TAP...TAP...OUCH! Keyboards: Companies are marketing alternatives to the old standard with more ergonomically correct designs to help ease computer users' pain.

April 04, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

When you look at your computer keyboard, do you see a friend or an enemy?

With a key layout more than a century old and a design that forces your wrists to work at an awkward angle, the traditional keyboard has long worried ergonomists, who try to figure out the best way for people to use technology without injury.

"It's definitely not innocuous," says Dr. David Rempel, a professor of medicine and director of the ergonomics program at the University of California, San Francisco. While the mouse and other factors such as posture play significant and well-known roles in computer-related health problems, Rempel says, many people take the keyboard for granted.

Buy a PC from a large manufacturer such as Dell, Gateway or Hewlett Packard and you'll most likely use the mouse and keyboard inside the box without thinking about the problems they can cause.

"It takes a computer user out of their way to figure out what they really want or need" in a good keyboard, says Rempel, who serves as an ergonomics consultant to a variety of computer companies. "There are no industry guidelines, no government recommendations or anything like that."

Yet there is no question that computer use is associated with a host of debilitating conditions, including carpal tunnel syndrome (pain associated with irritation of a nerve that passes through the wrist) and different forms of tendinitis.

A three-year study of computer users by Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta recently found that more than half of 632 employees at several Atlanta companies had pain in their arms, necks, shoulders and hands within the first year of starting jobs in which they worked on computers more than 15 hours a week. The study, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, didn't focus solely on keyboard use, but on all ergonomic aspects of using a computer.

Keyboard manufacturers say they want to do their part in preventing the pain, so they work with ergonomists to come up with new designs.

"There is a pretty long history of inventors proposing alternates to the keyboard because they were experiencing problems or had friends experiencing problems," Rempel says. "But very few led to manufacturers mass marketing new forms of the keyboard."

Rempel says German and Swiss researchers looked at the standard keyboard in the 1940s and 1950s, and the Swiss demonstrated the benefits of split keyboards as early as the 1960s. Since the 1980s, smaller companies have also come up with designs that regrouped the keys.

But the most important breakthrough in alternate keyboard design arrived in 1994 when the Microsoft Corp. launched its first "Natural Keyboard."

Taking into account the natural angle of the wrists, which point inward from the shoulder, its designers split the keys down the middle at the 6 and 7 keys on the top row and angled them to keep the wrist straight.

Since then, the natural keyboard has changed in small ways - the banks of keys are a bit closer together - but the basic geometry has remained the same, says Edie Adams, Microsoft's manager of hardware user research.

Other keyboard manufacturers, such as LogiTech (www. logitech.com), also have adopted the basic split design for some models.

Goldtouch Technologies (www.goldtouch.com) offers an ergonomic keyboard that is split in much the same way as Microsoft's natural keyboard and allows users to adjust specific angle to their taste.

FingerWorks (www.finger works.com) takes a different approach, making keyboards that require a lighter touch than standard models. The Delaware-based company's MultiTouch technology also allows users to use hand gestures to perform mouse-related and other functions.

For example, to simulate a double-click, users tap three fingertips on the surface of the keyboard. Some FingerWorks keyboards also are split in the middle and allow users to angle each piece in the much the same way the natural keyboard operates.

Rempel says no one has conducted a study to determine whether the natural-style keyboard design prevents tendonitis and repetitive stress injuries. But one of his doctoral students provided 80 test participants at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with four types of keyboards - one of which was the natural keyboard - to see whether a particular design would reduce existing pain. The natural keyboard appeared to succeed with some people.

"The interesting thing about the study at the Lawrence Livermore was that it appeared that the benefits didn't kick in until a month or two after the study subjects began using it," Rempel says.

Traditional keyboards continue to be the rule, largely because they're packaged with new PCs. Another reason they remain popular is that split keyboards generally require touch-typing skills that many users don't have.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.