Alternative Input Devices

25Jan09

During my studies at the University I had to find a way of arranging my workspace so that long hours of sitting in front of the computer and writing academic papers would not interfere with my general health – especially my wrists and hands. In the back of my head I always feared that tenosynovitis could strike me at any point and render me unable to work for an unspecified period of time. So very early I switched from the keyboard shape that is most common to one of the very first ergonomic keyboards – a fixed-split keyboard. The fixed-split keyboard is, as the name suggest, split in the middle and allows the user to leave the hands in a more natural and therefore relaxed angle on the keyboard. The angle, in which the keyboard is split is fixed, though, and cannot be adjusted by the user. It was more expensive than the common keyboard but I found myself writing for hours and day ons end without having any difficulty and without feeling any sort of pain in my arms and wrists.

At some point I moved away from working at the University and got a “real” job, which did not require so much typing as working with the mouse. When a colleague offered me to use his trackball, since my mouse was broken and there was no exchange mouse around, I sceptically gave it a try. It was nice to not having to move the hand that much but somehow, I preferred the touchpad to this alternative. With this alternative, though, I still did not feel any pain in wrists and hands and was able to give 100% at my job.

Only later, having had a few jobs in between, I encountered a mixture of work tools that triggered the so feared tenosynovitis in both hands. A non-ergonomic keyboard on which large amounts of documents need to be written in a short amount of time combined with hours and hours of testing and balancing games on mobile devices caused enormous pain in both wrists and arms and rendered me unable to work for weeks.

This was when I seriously started looking into alternatives. Of course, I was still using a fixed-split ergonomic keyboard at home – but not at work, which was changed almost immediately. I invested some money in a good keyboard to avoid further pain and sick leaves.

Not only this, though. I sat down and roamed the internet in search of better alternatives. There had to be better keyboards out there. So I came across the following alternatives:

  • Fixed-split keyboards: As explained above, these keyboards are split in the middle at an angle that is supposed to be less straining than a commonly shaped one. They are all, more or less, the same. Mostly differing in appearance and angle. The layout of the keys is the same, though.
  • Adjustable-split keyboards: Same idea, different execution. The keyboard is split as well but most of the time the two pieces (or three, depending on the keyboard) are either only connected at one point that is flexible and allows the user to change the angle depending on personal preference, or the pieces are not connected at all and can be arranged more flexibly. This allows for a very individual arrangement.
  • Vertical-split keyboard: On my search for alternatives I have only found one keyboard that fits in this category. The SafeType V801 not only splits the keyboard in half, it also puts up the sides in a 90° angle to allow an even more relaxed positioning of arms and wrists while typing. I have not yet found an alternative that is similar to this. I also have not had the chance to try this out and see if it is really more relaxing and less straining.
  • Customizable Keyboards: Technically speaking the Ergodex DX1 Input System is not a keyboard meant for typing longer texts but as an additional tool that allows different layouts for different software uses. Due to its extreme flexibility it can either be very ergonomic, or not. I like the flexibility, though, which no other product I have encountered so far offers (in this respect).
  • Keyless Keyboard: This concept fascinates me. Take away the main source of input and the concept still works. There is not one single key that needs to be pressed in order to input texts. Not quite sure how this works but like the idea and the fact that there are some designers that not only think outside the box but try to come up with a design that is less straining for arms and wrists.
  • Alternative Layout: The EZ-Reach 2020 comes in a shape similar to the fixed-split keyboards but offers a different layout in order to put less strain on fingers and hands when stroking the keys. The keys are arranged in columns, in the middle a second and third set of enter- and backspace-keys are added to make sure that the user does not need to move the fingers too much.

Of course, there are also  input devices and keyboards that are aimed at handicapped people who cannot use one or both hands and require completely different means of input devices but this is for another time and another blog entry.

So, have you found any alternative keyboards that I have not mentioned yet? Let me know.

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