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Ergonomic and Mobile: a Possible Combination?

Posted on the 14 November 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost

The development of new, better, lighter, faster personal computers seems to never stop. From floppy disks to solid-state drives, bulky CRT monitors to LCD flat screens, vacuum tubes to microchips: the past few decades have seen huge technological advancement on all levels. But how have these devices progressed ergonomically? Since we use computers for the best part of the day – not just desktop PCs, but also our tablets, notebooks and smartphones – we know they’re designed to impress with size and specs, but rarely rate high on comfort. Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is one of the hazards of such high levels of usage, and to avoid it we either have to decrease our device time, or change the way we use them. So what solutions are manufacturers offering?

Used as we are to pointing and clicking with a traditional mouse, it may come as a surprise how damaging they can be to our hands and wrists. Touch-screens may seem a good solution, but have their own flaws: you have to flex your neck often to see what you’re doing, and the sharp edges of thin phones and tablets put pressure on the same muscles you use to type with your thumbs.

A better solution is the vertical mouse. Vertical mice reduce pressure on the carpal nerve (responsible for carpal tunnel syndrome) by preventing the forearm from twisting, directing users to support their movements with the flesh on the side of their hands, instead of by the more fragile wrist. Another option is the roll-bar mouse, which also helps to prevent unnecessary wrist movement. These developments only attempt to improve traditional mouse use, while other solutions tackle the problem at the source. Air mice and finger trackers, for example, aim to change our method of input; more varied movements and hand gestures take the “repetitive” out of RSI.

Alternative input devices, sometimes called ‘handsfree mice,’ don’t require the use of this part of the body at all. These devices are not only useful for those already suffering from RSI, but also for people with physical disabilities. Options range from relatively simple foot mice, to eye- and head-tracking devices that use computer vision or infrared beams to detect a user’s movements. And yes, it is definitely possible to control a computer with brain waves, but it will probably be quite a while before you can buy such a device at your local computer store!

Our other favorite input device, the keyboard, comes in several modified varieties as well, but all popular alternatives make only minor adjustments to the standard arrangement. Different layouts have been around for decades but still lose out to QWERTY since their main goal is increasing typing speed, not decreasing the likelihood of developing work-related disorders.

Before we even start mentioning laptop stands, you’ve probably already noticed a big problem: all of these peripherals greatly reduce the much sought-after flexibility and mobility that convinced us to use tablets and notebooks in the first place. If you’re using a slim and stylish new notebook, it’s also very unlikely that you’ll want to carry an additional keyboard, roll-bar mouse, and laptop stand everywhere you go.

In some situations where portability is not an issue, ergonomic work stations may help. There are already some impressive, futuristic-looking models that incorporate ergonomically placed screens and input devices.  In the future, you’ll also probably be able to connect your mobile device wirelessly to output screens, so you will not have to rely on the limited input possibilities of smaller touch-screens.

Although these work stations may be set to become the norm at work or in public libraries, they’re still not quite the portable solution we’re looking for. Hopefully, mobile ergonomics will be a priority for developers in the future, but until then, the best solution is your common sense: take many breaks, exercise and stretch regularly, and listen to when your body is telling you it’s time to stop.

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