Designers Seeking a Safe Computer Keyboard : Ergonomics: Ideas kicking around are for a computer that will transcribe written or spoken words. Innovations, however, are meeting resistance.


Seven years ago, Anthony Hodges added another vocation to an eclectic collection of careers that included stints as an environmentalist, fighter pilot and unsuccessful political candidate.

Hodges, the son of a Linotype operator, became the inventor of an unconventional computer keyboard.

His design, which he calls the Tony, took a standard Apple keyboard and added several adjustable features, enabling a user to split the keyboard down the middle and tilt each half upward. The "A" shape -- which looks like someone broke the keyboard over his knee--can be adjusted to varying heights, which Hodges says helps eliminate hand and wrist injuries suffered by many workers who spend long hours in front of computer terminals.

"I've had those pains," said Hodges, who lives in Atherton, just south of San Francisco. "Flat keyboards force your hands into unnatural 'praying mantis' positions. The Tony allows the machine to fit your hands, not the other way around."

Hodges is one of a handful of iconoclasts promoting radical alternatives to today's conventional keyboard designs. Their devices--which so far have been roundly rejected by the big U.S. keyboard makers--range from variations on Hodges' split keyboard to keys that are moved much like a computer mouse.

Like Hodges, most keyboard inventors say their passion for change has been spurred, in part, by an interest in reducing hand and wrist injuries--known as repetitive strain injuries, or RSI--experienced by thousands of computer users each year.

Some medical experts believe that conventional flat keyboard designs may contribute to RSI.

"Is the keyboard at fault? Of course it is," says Robert E. Markison, a San Francisco hand specialist and assistant professor of surgery at the University of California School of Medicine. "The keyboard (design) forces you to deviate your wrists, twist your forearms, shift your elbows and tense your shoulders. You've set up a whole series of events that defy the normal position and functioning of the hand."

At one company, U.S. West Communications, a group of telephone operators has filed a product-liability suit against Computer Consoles Inc. of Rochester, N.Y., because they feel that the computer design contributed to their RSI. The 2-year-old suit is pending.

While old-fashioned typewriters required more force to pound the keys, these actions actually may have been less damaging than working on today's keyboards. The lighter touch of computer keys enables workers to type at high speeds, and these repetitive motions, experts say, can overwork a group of tendons in the hands and wrists, increasing the risk of RSI.

At the same time, Markison and others acknowledge that keyboard design is just one of many factors that may contribute to RSI, also known as cumulative trauma disorders or repetitive motion injuries.

"The keyboard has to be considered as part of a whole system (of workplace conditions)," such as keyboard positioning and a user's work habits, says Thomas Armstrong, director of the Center for Ergonomics at the University of Michigan.

"People are looking for a magic bullet to make the problems go away. But even the best keyboards, under certain conditions where keying is repetitive enough, will result in some problems," Armstrong explained.

Keyboard manufacturers take a tougher line. "It's true that a person can suffer from using a computer, but that problem has nothing to do with the keyboard," said Rita Black, a spokeswoman for International Business Machines Corp., which makes most of the keyboards sold with its computers. Computer users can minimize exposure to RSI with proper seating posture and equipment positioning, Black said.

IBM and other major manufacturers say they have no plans to radically change the keyboards used by 25 million office workers. If big changes are made within the next decade, it will probably be to eliminate keyboards altogether, substituting other inputting devices that convert handwriting or human speech directly to computer print, said Maryann Karinch, a spokeswoman for the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

Hodges and other innovators admit that keyboard-makers have not exactly been breaking down their doors with offers over the past few years.

Since the subject of workers with RSI came up, Hodges said, he has gotten responses from company officials such as, "Let them take aspirin--it's cheaper." Still, Hodges said he has been approached by a Japanese company (he refuses to go offshore) and several U.S. telecommunications companies recently have expressed interest in trying his keyboard.

"Why? Because they're starting to get sued" by users of flat keyboards, he said.

Experts say that for the most part, manufacturers have resisted changing the basic keyboard design simply because it's been that way for so long.

Experts are skeptical that innovators can lure major manufacturers into licensing or partnership agreements.

"Keyboard changes are driven by manufacturing costs," said Harry L. Snyder, professor of human factors engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. To be competitive, a new keyboard design must be produced at roughly the same cost as an average personal computer keyboard--about $20 apiece, Snyder said. If sold individually to retail customers, PC keyboards often are priced between $200 and $300, although more sophisticated keyboards for corporate office networks often range between $600 and $1,000.

Even if costs can be driven down, experts say, the next generation of innovative keyboards may be eclipsed by computers that read handwriting or transcribe speech.

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