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Vertical split keyboard offers lower injury risk for typists, Cornell study finds

Tomorrow's computer keyboard might be played more like an accordion than a piano, says a Cornell ergonomist. This, he says, is because a prototype vertical split keyboard (VK) allows two to three times more typing movements to stay in safe, low-risk positions for carpal tunnel syndrome compared with a traditional keyboard.

In fact, in a Cornell study published in the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 43rd Annual Meeting last month, Cornell ergonomists found that wrist angles and forearm movements stayed in the lowest risk zone for carpal tunnel syndrome 71 percent and 78 percent of the time, respectively, using the VK compared with only 44 and 25 percent using a traditional keyboard (TK). Wrists were put in the highest risk zone only 2 percent of the time using the VK compared with 12 percent with the TK.

Timothy Muss, a graduate student in the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell, tests a vertical keyboard using gloves with special sensors for his research project with Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis.

"These findings are important to the design of future keyboarding systems," says Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell and director of Cornell's Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory.

Hedge and Timothy Muss, a graduate student who will receive his master's degree in the spring in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis with a concentration in human factors and ergonomics, analyzed wrist posture (using gloves with special sensors) and typing performance of 12 female, right-handed, experienced touch-typists using a traditional keyboard and a VK.

Although the researchers found that the typists did slightly worse in typing speed and accuracy using the VK, Hedge said that the "magnitude of the difference is trivial, and with more practice on the VK, we believe the typists' performance would soon be on par with their work on traditional keyboards."

In a paper just published in the journal Ergonomics, Hedge reports that keyboards on lowered trays with a gentle, negative tilt away from the user puts 60 percent more typing movements within a low-risk zone for carpal tunnel syndrome compared with keyboards on desktops. In the latest study, typists used the TK on a lowered, flat keyboard tray. They also had palm supports for both keyboards, but for the VK arrangement, they also used an adjustable wooden frame with foam padding that attached to the VK with Velcro to support the arms and rest palms against.

The study was funded in part by a New York State College of Human Ecology Student Research Grant.

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