The Evolution of the Keyboard Continues




Long before the computer or even the typewriter was invented, the word “keyboard” referred to part of a musical instrument, where ten fingers would tap out melody and harmony rather than spreadsheets and form letters. But as BBC commentator Tom Chatfield points out, there’s a lot of similarity between the way we interact with the two types of keyboards, and how that interaction may change in the future.

We’ve looked at different types of modern keyboards in previous posts, but it’s interesting to note that for all intents and purposes we’re still using a keyboard layout that dates back to 1873, when Milwaukie-area inventor Christopher Sholes arranged letters in the QWERTY formation in order to prevent jammed mechanisms. In other words, he put the letters on the keyboard in a way that would actually slow typing speed so that the individual metal parts of the early keyboard wouldn’t get stuck to each other. Although that problem has absolutely no meaning in the world of computers (or even today’s electric typewriters) most of us are still using a system that was never designed to let us type at our fastest possible speed.

In Chatfield’s post, he talks about a new musical keyboard that’s touch-sensitive, flexible, and accepts movement in three dimensions (side to side and front to back, not just the up-and-down key tap). The “Seaboard” has the potential to change the way musicians connect with their instruments, and how they make music. It might be interesting to see something similar for a computer keyboard, where a little extra pressure on the keys would make a font bold, or the text size larger, eliminating the reduced typing speed caused by taking the fingers off the letter/number keys to access these formatting features. Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of the 150-year-old QWERTY layout, but new perspectives and new inventions mean that there will always be alternatives to explore.


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How To Pick The Best Computer Mouse Style




In a previous post, we talked about how the way you choose and use your computer mouse can affect your typing speed and even lead to problems like repetitive stress injuries. Today we’ll look at some of the options in mouse styles, and provide ergonomic tips on how to use your computer tools to reduce your risk of muscle strain while helping improve your typing skills.

Most mice are approximately hand-shaped, whether they’re flat or rounded, and can be either plugged into a computer or laptop, or use a wireless connection. If you have limited desk space, you might find a wireless mouse to be more convenient, because it gives you more flexibility in where you put it. This style is common in office environments.

For people who do a lot of gaming, there’s another style of mouse that’s shaped like a joystick. A new style of ergonomic mouse uses this model, because having your hand and arm in that position is more natural than keeping the wrist flat. In this model, the click controls are on the side and top of the joystick, and you’ll find that you use your thumb more often. This mouse is a good choice for people who might be prone to carpal tunnel syndrome.

No matter what style you use, remember that the position you have your hand in while using a mouse is just as important as the position your hands are in on the keyboard when typing. If possible, try to get a platform for the mouse that puts it just over the numeric keypad to the right of the keyboard. This will allow your right hand, wrist, and arm to keep approximately the same position when you move between the keys and the mouse. If you’re left-handed, try to keep the mouse as close as possible to the keyboard so that you aren’t stretching your arm out to the side.

Many people recommend using a wrist rest to avoid injury when using a mouse, but in fact putting pressure on the wrist at the base of the palm actually cuts off circulation, and this can lead to more risk of injury, not less. If you have your mouse correctly situated, the natural curve of your hand and arm will help you keep your wrist elevated in the proper position.

When using the mouse, don’t restrict your movements to your wrist alone. Use your entire forearm to move the mouse – you’re not moving it much from side to side or back and forth, but try to keep the line of your forearm and wrist straight. When you bend your wrist from side to side to move the mouse and cursor, you’re putting additional strain on the tendons and muscles in your wrist.

What type of mouse would you recommend using?


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Laptops and Ergonomics




There are many good things about laptops that make them much more useful than desktop computers. They’re lighter, they’re portable, they take up less space, and some of the newer models are practically indestructible. They’re such all-in-one packages that it sometimes leads to one of the problems with laptops: the keyboards aren’t really set up for the best typing posture. Laptop keyboards are flat, generally slightly smaller, and less flexible in terms of numeric keypad availability and function key placement, due to space considerations. The reason it’s a problem is that people like the package so much, they’re often reluctant to “clutter” their workspace with a plug-in keyboard, even if that keyboard is better for typing and less likely to cause stress-related physical problems. We’ve talked about ergonomic keyboard options in previous posts, and it’s worth repeating that if you’re experiencing soreness, tension, or slower typing because of your current keyboard, it’s definitely time to look into alternatives – even if that means you’ve got something else to pack into your computer carrying case.

Keyboards aren’t the only issue with laptops, however. The touchpad on a laptop is in the middle of the board, which might mean that you’re forcing your arms into a cramped position to use it. Touchpads might not be the best option if you do a lot of complicated formatting or layout of your typed text. In either case, remember that there are both plug-in and wireless mouse options that will let you continue to point-and-click where necessary, while keeping your arm and hand in a more natural position to the side.

Laptops might be portable and easy to prop up on your lap (hence the name!) or a counter or the kitchen table, but you need to weigh the convenience of being able to use your computer anywhere with the potential problems you’re causing in your eyes, your neck, and your posture. When your laptop is actually on your lap, you’re probably holding your head at an angle looking down instead of straight ahead. On the other hand, your arms are probably in a good position like this. Alternatively, if you’ve put your laptop on a surface where your eyes are level with the screen, you’ll have your arms and hands raised up to an unnatural and uncomfortable position. Again, with a stand-alone keyboard and mouse, it’s easier to adjust the laptop so that the screen is in the right place. If you use your laptop at a desk, you’ll need a laptop stand to get this adjustment and leave room for the keyboard underneath.

Don’t forget that while it’s useful to have only one piece of equipment to deal with, you might be creating more difficulties than you’re eliminating. If you need extra computer tools to get the best typing experience, don’t hesitate to include them in your work budget.


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How to Teach Children to Type




A child born in the 21st century comes into a world where there have always been mobile phones, e-readers, computers, and the global information resources available through an internet connection. With software designed for babies as young as six months old, and parents turning to online resources to entertain their kids, some children will start using a computer keyboard before they pick up a pencil to learn to write. Given that good typing skills help people of any age get the most out of their computer connections, it’s a good idea to help children learn the best way to type as soon as they start using the keyboard. Here are some suggestions for teaching children good typing habits:

Help them with posture. “Sit up straight!” isn’t something that parents need to say just at the dinner table, but also at the study desk. We’ve talked before about the importance of the correct sitting position for typing, and how bad placement and posture can lead to muscle pain and even injury. Good posture at the keyboard is even more important for children, whose bones and muscles are still growing. Help them learn the right position for typing, and prevent problems before they start.

Help them with hand position. Children’s hands are smaller, which might make it awkward for them to reach some of the keys on standard keyboard without moving their hands off the home row. On the other hand, they’ll have an advantage on laptops and netbooks with smaller keyboards. You’ll need to explain why it’s important to keep the right hand position, because most kids will think it just makes more sense to use whatever fingers they want to hit the keys. Again, helping develop typing skills at this age creates good habits, so work with children to get them through this first stage of keyboard training.

Help them enjoy the process. Games are a great way to teach kids to type. There are free typing games designed for children that help develop both speed and accuracy. As a parent, you can also come up with games and quizzes for typing practice. Read out a list of words to type, slowly at first and then speeding up. Use names of objects and people familiar to the child, or words related to a special interest like sports or animals. Remember to keep it fun by keeping the sessions short, and provide a healthy treat as a reward. After a while, the reward of being a good typist will be enough to keep them practicing!


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Can The Wii Make You Free – of the Keyboard?




Motion-sensing devices have been around for a long time. You or your relatives probably have a light fixture or two near your front door that goes on automatically when someone walks up the steps. Many modern office buildings use this technology to help save energy, with lights and power turned off by a computer system if no movement is detected in a room after a certain length of time. The Wii and Kinect systems take this concept to the next level, translating the user’s movements into onscreen images that allow gamers to directly interact with icons and animated characters. Up until now, there hasn’t been much subtlety in this movement, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried these games. Sometimes random swings are just as good as purposefully aimed ones in a virtual baseball game. When it comes to typing, random just won’t work, however. Accuracy is essential and so far the only way to get both speed and accuracy is to use a keyboard.

Of course, when a software or hardware developer sees this problem, they work on finding a solution. At last year’s ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a group of researchers from Cambridge,UK demonstrated a new device that uses a wrist-mounted laser-based sensor that accurately translates the position of the user’s hand and fingers into keyboard and screen commands. This device was created as part of the Digits program run by Microsoft, and while it’s not on the market yet, we should be hearing more about this system in the near future.

As these new ways of interacting with the computer gain in precision and speed, it’s possible that we’ll someday have an alternative to the keyboard that matches the fast touch typing speeds and accuracy that good typists can reach. For now, though, you’ll have to save the Wii for virtual bowling, and use the keyboard for your real text input.


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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Keyboard Design




When we buy a new computer or other electronic device, we usually don’t spend any time on thinking about how the designers came up with the way users would interact with and input information into that device. We’re too busy learning how to use it – how to access the keyboard, where the command keys are, whether we can customize anything to make it easier to use. But it’s very interesting to look at some of the thought processes that designers go through when they’re in development mode, especially when they’re working with getting user feedback. In fact, one of the ways to know whether you’ll find a device easy to use is to find out how much user testing was done during the development stage, and whether the designers actually listened to the users. That’s why we were pleased to see this breakdown of the path the people in the Microsoft Developer Network took in coming up with a touch-screen keyboard interface for Windows 8 includes lots of work with real users.

It’s important for any development team to really study how people use technology before beginning any redesign process. “Because it’s cool!” might be a fun way to work, but when those devices hit the marketplace, if “cool” isn’t also “easy and convenient” then sales won’t be very good. When the Windows 8 team started to look at how the interface could be easiest and most convenient, they reviewed how people use devices now, and decided that keeping a keyboard would be the best idea, since most people find it easy to use. Voice- and handwriting-recognition software just isn’t good enough yet for quick data entry (and most of us are so used to typing now, our handwriting is just awful!). On the other hand, video tutorials are quickly becoming one of the best ways to teach certain topics, and they don’t require a lot of keyboard training. For example, the guys behind the popular English language site Learn English 232 primarily use videos to teach the basics and the details of native-speaker-level English language skills.

The developers of the Microsoft product went through all the potential problems involved in using a touch-screen keyboard, including the issues of hand position, thumbs-only vs. multiple-finger typing techniques, and the size of the screen relative to the size of the virtual keys. And they decided to add entirely new features to their keyboard, like an “emoji” key that allows you to type emoticons. They’ve also added a press-and-hold feature for those letters that often get diacritical marks in other languages, so people who are typing in Spanish or French or German can type more quickly and easily.

All in all, we were impressed by the thorough approach the design team took to this keyboard development, and hope they will continue to integrate user feedback into future keyboard design.


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This Typing Tutor Is Out Of This World!




230 miles (370 kilometers) overhead, astronauts on the International Space Station are keeping fit and training their muscles with a device called the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED). It’s designed to work specific areas of the body to maintain muscle strength, bone density, and endurance. The ARED tracks each astronaut separately, and provides guided fitness exercises for them to do, as well as personal fitness plans. This 21st-century technology helps astronauts stay healthy in space while their medical crew monitors them from the ground. It’s the same sort of cutting-edge technology that allows the Typesy system to work with each user to make sure that they’re getting the right exercises to move them forward in their personalized typing improvement plan.

Having your own personal trainer at the gym means that you’ll be guided and supported in your exercise routines. The trainer will start you with basic exercises and gradually work you up to harder ones. If you’re lifting weights, the trainer will start you with the lighter weights and make sure that your body is in the right position on the machine so that you get all the benefits without running the risk of injury. That’s what the ARED system does for the astronauts, as it targets different muscle groups in sequence while tracking their progress, increasing the resistance as needed. When you’re logged in to the Typesy system, your personal typing tutor tracks your progress through the exercises, and will recommend more work on problem areas so that your typing skills are always in top shape.

If you work out at a gym so that you can participate in sports events, you’ll already know the fun of competition. Typesy gives you the opportunity to experience the “thrill of victory” in typing games – what’s more, since multiple users can access the software, you can compete against friends and family members for high scores, or compare your typing accuracy and speed. And because you can set your own typing goals, there’s no end to improvement. As inspirational author William Clement Stone is quoted as saying, “Aim for the moon … if you miss, at least you’ll end up among the stars.”

You can learn more about the ARED system at the NASA website.


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Can You Think With Your Fingers?




Walking, jogging, going up stairs and down again, reaching out to turn a door handle – you’re so used to doing these things that you don’t have to think about them. You don’t sit down to breakfast and consciously say to yourself, “Now I will stretch out my arm horizontally, rotate my wrist 90 degrees, open my fingers wide and then curl them inwards towards my thumb, increase the muscular resistance in my arm and raise it slightly higher, and retract my arm again.” Instead, you just pick up the glass of orange juice. There’s a useful phrase called “muscle memory” that explains why these familiar actions are so familiar: we’ve done them so many times that they’re automatic. The brain is still involved, of course, but on a completely unconscious level.

Part of the reason that athletes and musicians practice every day is so that they get this muscle memory. In a sense, it’s not only the brain that trains the muscles, it’s the muscles that train the brain. Every time you shape your body in a specific way, whether you’re positioning your fingers to make an E-chord on the guitar or swinging a baseball bat, your muscles “report back” to the brain in a process called proprioception. The information that the muscles transmit to the brain help the brain learn exactly what signals to send to put the muscles in that position the next time. At first, you’re concentrating on what you’re getting your muscles to do, but as time goes on you don’t have to think about it. That lets you move faster and more accurately, and the movement happens automatically.

When you learn to touch type, the same process occurs. When you start out, you have to “tell” your fingers which keys to hit and where the keys are on the keyboard. As you improve, you don’t have to consciously think about where the keys are, and your fingers start to move automatically. A touch typist relies on muscle memory for fast and accurate typing, letting the fingers “think for themselves” while the eyes are busy scanning text to input, or the brain is coming up with ideas to get down on paper – or rather, the computer screen. Learn to touch type, and let your fingers do the thinking!


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Keyboards For The 21st Century – And Beyond




If you spend a lot of time typing, you know how important it is to have a workspace that minimizes distraction and physical stress, and maximizes efficiency. Many things contribute to this, including the type and position of the chair you sit in, the type of mouse you use, and the height and size of the display screen on your laptop or monitor. As technology and best practices change, though, our assumptions about how a workspace might be configured are changing as well. You might be using a touchpad more often than a mouse these days, and you might even have abandoned your chair altogether to work in a standing (or even walking!) position. But until voice-recognition software finally gets good enough to be a foolproof way of getting words into a clean and correctly-formatted document, the keyboard is still the way you’ll be typing your text.

As we discussed in a previous post, there are many ergonomic keyboards available, and it’s worth looking into some of them if you find that your hands, neck, or shoulders are not in the right position for typing. New keyboard configurations come out every year, so there are many to choose from. They range from simple keypads to standard QWERTY setups, and not all of them are designed with touch typing in mind. Here are some of the more interesting modern keyboards we’ve read about lately:

– a roll-up keyboard that’s easy to carry and easy to clean (QWERTY)
– a laser projection keyboard that turns any flat surface into a QWERTY layout
– a wrist keyboard that has a miniature QWERTY setup (not for touch typing, though)
– a radial keyboard that scrambles the keys out of QWERTY order (still in development)
– a keyboard that eliminates keys entirely

No matter which keyboard you choose, make sure that it allows you to keep your hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders in a natural and comfortable position. As your touch typing skills improve, you’ll find that it’s easier to keep your hands in a relaxed position, but the right keyboard will certainly help.


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Quick Hand Massages Release Typing Tension




All parts of your body are involved in typing – your brain, your eyes, the muscles of your shoulder and back and legs, and even your ears if you’re doing dictation or listening for the ‘ding’ of your computer’s automatic spell-check feature that helps you quickly correct your mistakes. But the parts that do the most work, and suffer the most stress, are your hands and fingers. If you spend long hours each day typing, it’s important to take regular breaks to keep the circulation of air and blood going strongly through your body, and to rest your eyes as well as stretch out your muscles. If you find that your hands are starting to cramp or ache, you can try some quick hand massage techniques to help loosen muscles and tendons.

Start by making small circles with the flat of your thumb around the palm of your other hand. Keep that hand relaxed while you do the massage. Use enough pressure to reach deep muscles, but not so much that you’re causing yourself more pain. Make circles over the base of the thumb on that hand, and be sure to massage the thick pad of muscle between the thumb and forefinger. Turn your hand over and continue to use the thumb of the other hand, massaging these muscles at the base of your thumb and up to the webbing.

Move to the thumb itself, and use the thumb and fingers of your other hand to massage it from the base of the thumb to the thumbnail, on both sides. Do the same for each of your other fingers, then work your way back to the thumb again. As you move back to the thumb, take a minute to massage the webbing between each of your fingers.

Gently pull your thumb from base to tip, helping to elongate the muscles and stretch the tendons. Do this for each of the fingers. Some people may find that this causes their joints to “pop” as the fingers are stretched; in general, this is just a sound that is made by a bubble of gas escaping from the synovial fluid around the joint (a natural process) or of a ligament snapping back into place. However, if there is pain when your joints “pop” then don’t do this part of the exercise, and check with your doctor, as this often indicates arthritis.

Switch hands and repeat the massage. When you get used to the process, you’ll find it’s something that you can do even while standing or walking, so you could combine a quick hand massage with a break from sitting at your desk, which will be good for you all over.


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