Technology

Xenakis on Technology: Why You Need an Optical Mouse

Keyboard and mouse devices are helping overcome repetitive stress injuries.
John XenakisJanuary 31, 2001

Leah Stevens gets shooting pains in her hands and wrists if she types for several hours at a time on her computer. As it happens, she’s also working on her Ph.D. thesis on ergonomics and technology for the engineering and psychology departments at the University of Central Florida, so she’s in a good position to find ways to help herself.

Part of her research is to test out a “keyless keyboard” called the OrbiTouch from Keybowl Inc. (www.keybowl.com). To use it, you put your hands on two knobs (or domes) and slide them up, down, left, or right in various combinations to type letters.

The device also has an integrated mouse, and therefore, the same motions can drag and click the mouse.

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Note that the knobs don’t turn; they slide. This is important, because it means that you can type without moving your fingers at all. Even wrist movement is minimal, so that all motion is performed by the elbows and shoulders.

“It has a contour that matches the anatomical fit of my hand,” Stevens says. “I notice a difference just putting my hands on the domes.”

Stevens, who’s a touch typist at 100 words per minute, finds the OrbiTouch extremely comfortable to use. And after about 40 hours of practice, she achieved a typing speed of 40 words per minute, which is quite adequate, given the reduced physical stress.

Input Devices Aplenty

Before going on with the OrbiTouch, it’s worth noting that the low-cost options are increasing for people with hand injuries.

In fact, everyone should go to their local computer store and get an optical mouse, a device that usually costs no more than $30 from manufacturers such as Logitech Corp. or Microsoft Corp.

A ball mouse requires the user to press hard to make it work, especially after dirt and gunk have accumulated in the mechanism.

But an optical mouse has no moving parts, and never gets dirty. It works purely with a laser light, and it responds precisely and accurately to the lightest feather touch, which does a lot to save stress on the fingers and wrists.

There is such a big difference between using a mechanical mouse and an optical mouse, that even if the company you work for is too cheap to pay for it, I strongly recommend to everyone to go out to the store and pay $30 for it yourself. The difference is so great, you’ll be glad you did.

While you’re at the computer store, you might want to check out some other devices. For example, there are wireless mice that don’t require cables between the mouse and the computer.

In addition, there are specially shaped mice that conform to the hand in various ways. Or the mouse can be eliminated entirely with a trackball or a tablet. Finally, there are “natural keyboards” that provide different kinds of hand positions when typing.

“Try out the different mice in the store — feel them and grip them, to see what you should be honing in on,” says Stevens. “The main thing is to use common sense. Just because someone says it’s ergonomically designed, don’t take their word for it. If it feels unorthodox to you, then don’t use it. Ask yourself whether it fits your body naturally, and whether you’d be comfortable spending the time learning how to use it. If you don’t give yourself enough time, it’ll just sit in the corner.”

“Feel” the Screen

The iFeel mouse can help people having difficulty seeing windows on the computer screen or different objects on a Web page, by letting computer users “feel” the objects on their screens.

When a cursor moves across a window boundary, or moves over a button, the mouse physically vibrates. You can adjust the vibrations to give a “rubbery,” “metallic,” or “crisp” feel.

People who think they could be helped by the iFeel mouse should take a couple of days to get used to it, according to Rob Enderle, analyst for Giga Information Group. “It’s different because it gives one more piece of feedback.”

Enderle says, “A lot of folks are uncomfortable with things they can’t touch. The iFeel gives them a feel for the pages they’re looking at, and for people having difficulty seeing lines, it can be very helpful.”

The iFeel mouse is available in computer stores for about $50. It requires a USB port on your computer.

Typing with Boxing Gloves

The OrbiTouch is more experimental, with a product launch from Keybowl Inc. expected within the next three months.

“It started out seven years ago as an innocent research project to eliminate the motions causing [repetitive motion injuries],” says Pete McAlindon, the inventor and CEO of Keybowl Inc. The company was formed in 1997, following publication of McAlindon’s original research results, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Indeed, this kind of injury can strike almost any computer user at any time. One person, who prefers to remain anonymous, played Minesweeper intensively for two days and ended up with several months of wrist pain. It’s also been reported that even teenagers suffer life-long repetitive stress injuries.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most widely publicized of these problems, but there are many other injuries that can affect computer typists, including arthritis, paralysis, missing fingers, and neuromuscular disorders.

“As people started coming to me with upper body disabilities, I saw this as a huge problem,” says McAlindon. “For example, some people who can’t move their fingers have to type by blowing into a stick. These people could use [the OrbiTouch] to type without using their fingers. Based on what I’ve seen and used, the most widely regarded mouse as being the best ergonomic mouse for carpal tunnel syndrome is the $30 Logitech mouse. They could have their wrists totally immobilized, if necessary. You could literally use it with boxing gloves on,” although he doesn’t recommend it.

New users find that it takes five to 10 hours to use the keyboard comfortably, and the average user can attain about half of his former typing speed, according to McAlindon.

Although the OrbiTouch is not yet available for purchase, you can advance order it from the Keybowl Web site, www.keybowl.com, for $299. The Web site also contains detailed information on how the device works.

(Send John Xenakis your questions and comments for Xenakis on Technology (XOT) to [email protected])

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