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Making Computing Less "Backbreaking"

By Jim Bray

If sitting in front of the computer is a real pain in the neck for you, a high tech workstation may be just what the chiropractor ordered.

Ergonomics isn't usually a hot topic with me, but I've been doing some contract work where "worker comfort" means you stack a couple of packages of printer paper to raise your monitor to a more functional height.

I thought my home office was an ergonomic nightmare until I saw this place. Not only are there monitor-induced neck pains, but the desk is "configured" so you have to sit perched like a squirrel holding a nut in its front paws to use the keyboard. While this may be cute, it certainly isn't the best way to type or use a mouse.

Fortunately, Microsphere Systems Corp. is offering a high tech solution to this type of "terminal torment."

Microsphere makes a nifty "womblike workstation" it would like you to believe is the perfect antidote for crossed eyes, sore backs and stiff wrists - and office angst in general. Its M1 Workstation does this by clustering computer components around you, rather than just dumping you in front of the monitor and turning you loose.

The M1 is a metallically-handsome unit that looks kind of like a strange, Darwinian cross between a dentist's chair, a first class airline seat, and one of those big loungers into which Keannu Reeves plugged his neck in the science fiction movie "The Matrix."

For your (or, better still, your boss's) $1995US investment, you can relax into a reclining, "breathable mesh" chair that comes complete with adjustable headrest, footrest, and armrest, as well as keyboard and monitor platforms you can adjust in three dimensions to place them just where you want them.

I haven't actually used one of these doohickeys long enough to - presumably - fall in love with it, but I managed to pry my seat into one at a recent trade show and was impressed. The only thing missing was a big flat area - like a conventional desktop - on which you can pile all your papers and other stuff.

Oh, sure, Microsphere makes an optional "secondary cabinet" that comes complete with a bunch of drawers, a printer/fax area, "pullout storage device," and a slide out phone surface - for executives who actually answer their calls rather than forward everyone to the Purgatory of voice mail - and there's also an optional "writing surface" that moves out over your keyboard.

Unfortunately, these surfaces aren't big enough for my sloppy ways and I reckon I'd run out of room in about five seconds; right now, I have about twenty five square feet of flat desktop in my home office and it's generally piled about three feet high with junk.

Then again, perhaps if I had to get by with less space I might actually get organized…

One nice feature about the M1 Workstation is that it can help you organize your cables, with hose-like tubes through which you pass the wiring. Most people will probably like being able to get their wires tucked safely out of the way, though it wouldn't work for me because I'm always adding and changing computer components and need easy access to what has unfortunately become a rat's nest of cables and/or connectors.

A possible downside to the M1 is its reasonably substantial entry price, though it could be argued that the workstation is no more expensive than many conventional desks. Besides, Microsphere says it's actually a cheap investment once you factor in the improved productivity and reduced sick time you get from happy and comfy workers - and it's an argument that makes some sense.

To back up their claims, Microsphere claims Liberty Mutual spent $50 millionUS in 1998 on "wrist claim injuries" it attributes to "cumulative trauma disorders" (CTD's) exacerbated by keyboard use.

So when you hit up the boss for an M1, you can argue you're doing the company a favor, thereby scoring brownie points while you push for better working conditions!

The only thing that could work against you is that you may be so comfortable in the M1 that you'll spend as much time napping as working - and if you need to get up to retrieve something from your filing cabinet you might not bother -thereby not getting any work done.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006