Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bothell firm still easing pain using ergonomics

History of ergonomic keyboards ...

"Before text messaging and the click-happy cyberculture conspired to compromise fine-motor skills everywhere, Kinesis Corp. in Bothell saw the need to ease our technological pain. It released the first commercial ergonomic computer keyboard in the U.S. in 1992.

Having beaten Microsoft Corp. and Apple to the punch, privately held Kinesis remains a pioneer in ergonomic office technology, with a new keyboard, the Freestyle, released in April 2007.

The Freestyle is the first keyboard in the market to separate completely at the middle, allowing maximum latitude for both hands. The two pieces detach with the push of a button, permitting custom separation and tilt to fit the body size and posture of the user. Like all Kinesis keyboards, it comes in personal computer and Mac versions.

As Kinesis' most customizable keyboard to date, the Freestyle can be arranged in several configurations, which better addresses the needs of corporations and families.

At $99, the base-model Freestyle is also Kinesis' most affordable keyboard. Its price allows companies to take an active approach in supplying employees with safer keyboards, while allowing Kinesis to appeal to a more mainstream audience.

"For us that's a huge opportunity," said Jon Biggs, director of sales and marketing. "That's a major breakthrough."

So far, the premise seems to be working. In 2008, the Freestyle's average monthly growth rate in sales has been 21 percent, Biggs said.

Kinesis got its start in 1991 with Will Hargreaves, who has a doctorate in cell biology and a background in medical research. He developed carpal tunnel syndrome after demolishing his deck and thereafter found using a standard keyboard difficult.

"Once you get that kind of injury," Hargreaves said, "you're really sensitive for life."

Inspired by a low-profile ergonomic keyboard he found in England and troubled by the significant upswing in repetitive-strain injuries at the time, Hargreaves developed the Contoured keyboard, a space-age-looking device with the keys arranged in separated sunken wells that reduce lateral hand movement. At the time it sold for $700, but Hargreaves said consumers shelled out the money because many were facing the prospect of surgery and badly needed a solution. The Contoured keyboard was featured in the 1997 Will Smith movie "Men in Black" and now sells for $299.

Kinesis' keyboard was quickly followed by less radical counterparts from Comfort Keyboard Systems and Apple Computer. Microsoft released its ergonomic Microsoft Natural in late 1994.

Because the Microsoft version looks less strange, costs less and features a trusted brand name, it sells in the millions. Kinesis sells in the tens of thousands, Hargreaves said. So Kinesis diversified in 1996, gradually adding additional office products to its line, including ergonomic pointing devices, chairs and keyboard trays.

The explosion in repetitive-strain injuries began to taper off after 1994, Biggs said. Ergonomic equipment helped many people retain jobs or return to work."    (Continued via Seattlepi.com, Lynst Burton)    [Usability Resources]

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