Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Manufacturers get keyed into typing ergonomically

By Bill Heaney  /  STAFF REPORTER

The ''Scurry'' virtual keyboard from Samsung.

PHOTO: SAMSUNG ADVANCED INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

Taiwan is in a race with international designers to create alternatives to the traditional keyboard that aim to reduce injuries and increase mobility. Designs of the future may be anything from flexible keyboards you can roll up, to foldable models, to devices you can wear on your hand like a glove.

Taiwanese are well positioned to make the next generation of keyboards.

Technology matchmaker Phil Singleton of BridgeTech-Asia works to marry foreign designers and local manufacturers.

"Innovations are coming from all over the world, but the mass manufacturing is based here," he told the Taipei Times yesterday. "The Taiwanese have long-standing relationships with their big OEM partners and increasingly need to present them with innovations."

Singleton is currently seeking Taiwanese partners for the US-developed FrogPad, a keyboard that is just a third of the size of the traditional keyboard. The FrogPad features 15 standard-size keys in a central pad that covers 80 percent of the most commonly used letters in English, Singleton said.

By pressing a key on the lower section of the pad, users can type the less frequently used letters and characters. The device has distinct advantages over current mini designs that have shrunk the size of the keys, making them difficult to use, Singleton said.

The standard "Qwerty" keyboard -- named for the first six letter keys -- was developed in 1868 by Christopher Sholes, inventor of the typewriter. Sholes separated the most commonly used keys to prevent them from jamming. When electronic and computer keyboards were developed, they inherited the Qwerty layout.

But one ergonomics professor said the keyboard lay-out was not the problem.

"The issue with keyboards is not the layout but the upward sloping angle of the keys that causes the wrists to bend upwards, putting pressure on the carpal tunnel, and this is the primary risk factor for injury," Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University said in an e-mail. "So the flatter the keyboard the better."

This is good news for UK start-up ElekSen Ltd which has developed a super-thin fabric keyboard that can be used with personal digital assistants (PDAs), smart phones and tablet computers. Representatives from the company are in town this week to find Taiwanese partners, but were unavailable for comment yesterday.

A local company that produces a flat rubber roll-up keyboard is Ezkey Corp (寰賀電腦). The keyboard is completely sealed, protecting it from spills and grime and making it popular with medical centers, universities, auto-repair shops and restaurants, according to Oliver Huang (黃錫雄), spokesman for the company.

Ezkey also manufactures three-section fold-out keyboards for PDAs that unfold from pocket-size into a full-size keyboard. The firm also makes split keyboards -- where the keys are separated into two halves -- that increase the distance between the two hands when typing.

Ergonomics professors recommend this kind of design, saying it reduces the strain on the hands.

Hedge also recommends placing the keyboard at lap height so that the elbow is at an angle greater than 90 degrees and tilting the keyboard away so that the wrists are not forced to bend upwards.

One option may be to dump the keyboard altogether. The Virtual Keyboard from Israel's VKB Ltd is an infrared projection of a keyboard that can be displayed on any flat surface. The projector unit is also a sensor that detects the typist's finger movements and translates them into the appropriate character or keystroke on a computer screen.

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