In 2013, my carpal tunnel was beginning to become unbearable. Every day, I would come home with wrists burning and fingertips tingling. In an effort to alleviate my symptoms, I started to try alternate input hardware. In this article, I will describe my experiences with some of these alternate setups.
The “Minority Report” Setup
Using CamSpace and the finger of a glove which I had colored bright green, I put together a sort of ghetto Minority Report interface. Cool as it was, there were two major problems. The first was that it was annoying to hold my hand up in front of the camera constantly. The second is that it was really sensitive to changes in lighting and angle of my hand.
My thought with this one was that maybe I could casually wave my hand over the desk rather than gripping a mouse. It didn’t work out that way. The parts are rather cheap, and just like the older generation of optical mice, the laser has to sit flat on the table, preferably on a mousepad, preferably which is dark-colored and not reflective.
This one promises to free your hand from the desk altogether, and it does, but unless you have child sized hands, you’re going to strain your thumb trying to reach the trackball (and use it in general). Furthermore, the trackball gets dirty easily and starts sticking, requiring further thumb effort.
The Evoluent was actually pretty good. It’s probably the best version of a wired old-style mouse that will ever exist. It did allow me to stop pronating my wrist. I ultimately rejected it because (like all mice), it sat far off to the side of my keyboard, requiring me to reach out quite far in order to move the cursor from left to right on the screen.
I decided to try a ball mouse. Looking around on Amazon, the Kensington Expert Mouse seemed to get consistently good reviews, so it was the one I ordered. I thought it would be ridiculously difficult to use, but it wasn’t. (I played all three Mass Effect games with it.) It did cause me to pronate my wrist some, but the pronation was far less than any other mouse except for the Evoluent. Since a ball mouse requires a smaller surface area, I also didn’t have to reach for it. While not perfect, I found it to be easier on my hands than all of the other mice I’d tried. I own two now, in case one breaks. Another bonus is that you can hold it in two hands like a Dreamcast controller, in handshake position, which is about as ergonomic as it gets.
This thing seemed like it had a lot of potential. If I could mount it anywhere, I could figure out a position which didn’t hurt my hands. I got pretty creative, but in the end, the Ergo Touchpad made both my wrist and my fingers hurt (as opposed to just my wrists).
While technically impressive, the problem with eye tracking seems to be human eyes. The EyeOn tracked my eye movements very accurately, but human eyes flicker all over the place instead of settling on their targets like mice do. It’s possible that they might fix that in the software eventually, but as of late 2013, it was pretty unusable.
Webcam Eye Tracking Software
I tried a few different eye tracking software packages too. None of them worked as well as the EyeTech did, which is to say, they were all pretty horrible.
When I saw the video for the Leap Motion, I got excited. When I tried it, I lost that excitement. It’s a nice toy, nothing more.
Initially I dismissed the possibility of using a touchscreen monitor because I figured reaching for it wouldn’t work, and I still think so, if you’re sitting down. However, because I later wanted a set up in which I could switch between standing and sitting, I purchased the E2014T to use while standing up, and for that it works quite well. My one complaint is that if you don’t touch the screen for a few minutes, it seems to fall asleep and the next few times you touch the screen, it is unresponsive. I often find myself tapping the screen until I see the little tap recognition animation and then going on to do the real tap. Still, it gives my thumbs a break from the trackball.
The other ergonomic keyboards I tried, with the exception of the Kinesis, aren’t even worth mentioning here. In terms of comfort, the Natural Keyboard Elite was just the best. I have two now. The wrist pad is at just the right height. The angle of the keys is pretty good. Using it all day still hurt my wrists, but much less than other keyboards.
Though all the standard setups for it (even with the accessory set) were less comfortable than the Natural Keyboard Elite, what I like about the Kinesis is that it gives you the ability to experiment. With a little DIY spirit, anyone should be able to make it into a better keyboard than anything else available, because it’s not one-size-fits-all like the rest of them.
What’s better than a comfortable keyboard? No keyboard at all. Though Dragon does have a bit of a learning curve, I’ve found it to be completely worth it and wholeheartedly recommend it as a keyboard alternative. Even for programmers, there are (free) Dragon add-ons which enable programming by voice, including VoiceCode, Aenea, and (my project) Caster.
So what did I ultimately choose? My current setup has Dragon NaturallySpeaking instead of a keyboard, the touchscreen monitor for standing, and the trackball for sitting. I haven’t had anything remotely resembling a standard setup in about 18 months. The result is that the burning and tingling have gone away completely, and all that remains of my carpal tunnel is occasional stiffness and soreness from extended use of the trackball. This is a better recovery* than I hoped for, but I think there’s still a lot of room for innovation. Come on hardware hackers, give me an opportunity to give you my money.
* It’s also worth mentioning here that after using the Natural Elite / Kensington combo for a while, I went to see a physical therapist. She had me wear night splints and did an ergonomic evaluation/ correction of my sitting posture at work. Those two things alone reduced my symptoms by about 60%.