When the first laptops were created around 1979 — laptops like the Grid Compass — ergonomics was not exactly a core concern. The screens were only 2-4 inches, RAM was a few hundred kilobytes, and batteries were huge. The Osbourne 1 weighed 24 pounds, perhaps making it the first portable computer and dumbbell. Hooray for convergence!
Modern clamshell and tablet designs have solved many of these issues: screen sizes exceed 17”, RAM can be several gigabytes, and weight can be less than three pounds, deservedly earning names like the Air. What hasn’t been solved is ergonomics, and that’s a costly problem.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported 650,000 cases of work-related muscular disorders, costing businesses an estimated $20 billion in medical claims and lost productivity. An ergonomically ideal computer setup aligns the top of the screen with our eye level, lets our arms and wrists straighten, and allows our shoulders to relax.
Because laptop screens are attached to their keyboards, they require a damaging trade-off: place the laptop at eye level and hunch our shoulders, or place the keyboard at arm level and bend our neck. Most laptop keyboards are also rectangles, requiring wrist twisting. The result is chronic neck, shoulder, and wrist pain, and with laptop use increasing, this problem will only get worse.
What is needed is a fully ergonomic laptop. Let’s call it the Ergonaut and examine ways this could be done:
–Allow screens to rise to eye level: The DreamCom 10 has a height-adjustable screen, but does not rise to eye level if the laptop is actually in your lap with straight arms and relaxed shoulders. It is also hard to find, at least in the States.
–Separate the keyboard and monitor: Many laptop owners use docking stations to attach an ergonomic keyboard and screen. The problem is that this isn’t mobile, defeating the purpose of a laptop. Video goggles like the Myvu Crystal could attach to a computer’s monitor and display a screen that would always be at eye level, but I am not sure the screen would be large enough for common productivity tasks. It’s also unclear a form factor could make goggles professional enough for businesspeople, instead of becoming the next dorkifying Segway.
Perhaps a design could allow the screen to detach and prop on a raised surface, similar to AlwaysInnovating’s Touch Book, or allow the keyboard to pop out and rest at forearm level. There are design challenges either way.
–Use curved or arched keyboards: Acer has a few models, such as the Ferrari and TravelMate, that slightly curve the keyboard to reduce wrist twisting. This helps, but in my experience, the curve is not angled enough for straight wrists. The GoldenTouch Go is an arched and two-part keyboard that covers an existing keyboard, but I have not seen it integrated into a laptop.
There are likely other solutions to address poor neck, arm, and wrist placement, but I have not found any laptop that solves the trifecta. The first to do so would be uniquely compelling to road warriors who don’t want to be abused by their hardware.
If a working and affordable solution could be created, hardware ventures are still much more challenging than software. Every user needs their own physical product, startup costs are higher, margins are lower, iteration is slower, shipping adds costs, retailers take a cut, and execution is a lot harder. If successful, large laptop vendors like Dell would likely copy Ergonaut, making patents and iteration essential. Another approach is to just license the designs or components to existing laptop vendors, bypassing the challenges of inventing a new laptop.
Have you seen anything like this? If not, how would you create it?
Mark Goldenson would be up for becoming a cyborg, if only to prevent carpel tunnel. He is starting an innovative venture in health care. To submit an idea for the What’s Next series, email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected ideas will receive attribution.
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