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It’s rare in the life of a reviewer of technology tools and toys that a company tries to talk him out of writing about its wares. But that’s what happened when I first approached John Elias, the chief executive of Fingerworks Inc., a company that manufactures a cool-looking, low-impact line of keyboards called TouchStream. While he said he welcomed a review, he warned me that “I would be surprised if our keyboards would be of much interest to attorneys.” He explained that the keyboards require a “significant learning period,” and so his customers tended to be people who type almost constantly — programmers, clerical workers, journalists and the like — or people who already suffered from repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. But I’m not the kind of guy who is turned away by mere logic and insightful argument. Besides, lawyers are beginning to discover the charms of the TouchStream. The keyboard has no actual keys. It’s actually more like a touchpad, a touch-sensitive surface imprinted with the image of a keyboard. The user taps on it ever so gently, � la “Star Trek” command consoles. Mouse actions are incorporated into special strokes along the keyboard’s surface. Richard Martinelli, an associate at New York’s Morgan & Finnegan, calls it his “new toy.” It wasn’t fun and games that led Martinelli to TouchStream. He had begun to experience what he calls “twings and twangs in my thumb” and had begun to worry. Martinelli is also one of those souls who has a “geeky-fetishy” fascination with cool new things. So am I. So I had Elias send me a keyboard, despite his reservations. Some days, it seems, the typing never ends. Writing, e-mail, online research, instant messages — for many of us, on those days, our fingertips do the talking. And sometimes our wrists do the complaining. Could this be the start of the dreaded RSI? The $329 Stealth model (there are also a Mini and other models) popped out of the shipping box looking otherworldly, with its purple surface and keys printed on the top. But what worried me most were the instructions and CD-ROM training manual. That’s when I decided to rethink this. Did I really want to learn to type again? The first time had been hard enough; traumatic, even. My relationship with typing is complex. My mother owned a hulking IBM electric typewriter. It hummed like a contented lion, and the vibration from the motor seemed to shake the whole desk. Even then, I had the soul of a geek; I adored that machine, but was not allowed to play with it. Once, my disciplinarian grandpa Julius let me use his typewriter. He rolled paper onto the platen and left me alone. Within moments I was in tears. “I knew you wouldn’t let me use it!” I sobbed in 5-year-old outrage. Having never seen a manual typewriter, I thought he had tricked me by not turning it on. I eventually learned to type, but not until college. Learning to master the Stealth was both a challenge and a chore. Tapping my fingers against the flat surface made me feel very futuristic, and learning the finger combinations or special functions — gliding two fingers across the keyboard to move the cursor, and three fingers to define and drag text — was kind of fun. At the same time, it was frustrating to keep brushing the keyboard with an errant finger and see random characters appear on the screen. The word “adored” became “adobred.” Even more maddening were the moments that my fingers would lose their orientation over the home keys, with the predictable gibberish result. “Could I try it?” my wife asked. You need to know something about Jeanne. She is the fastest typist I know, capable of speeds of more than 100 words a minute. But the keyboard frustrated her from the first moment. “I feel like I’m a child,” she said. “I can’t type at all!” After a few more minutes of trying, she crossed her arms over her chest and gave up. She had typed, in part: “I/j; fhhefl iInhkclanm’/t`smake jthis fwork. FI dlosntdA nThis is AGDhard To use.” She refused to touch it again, and I understood why. Like Jeanne, I had spent years refining my typing skills, and it’s one of the few things I actually believe that I do well (the jury is still out on that whole writing thing). Being sent back to typing re-education camp is not fun. Elias told me that mastering the keyboard takes a few weeks of practice, and that fast, accomplished typists like my wife have the most trouble adapting to the system. As I stuck with the keyboard, my error rate dropped and my speed improved. I could even imagine using it every day, especially if I was feeling the twinges of RSI. The most important question is one I can’t answer: Could it actually help reduce twinges and twangs? While it makes sense that a lighter touch might mean less wear and tear on the muscles and tendons, Elias doesn’t make the claim outright, since no clinical trials have been conducted that could prove or disprove his hypothesis. At Elias’s suggestion, I asked Alan Hedge, the director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University. He has measured the force it takes to type on a TouchStream board, and it is only one-fourth that required for a typical keyboard. He says that he has been gathering anecdotal evidence from users with repetitive stress injuries that it helps them. Hedge is not exactly impartial. As an ergonomics expert, he says that he is “inundated” with new keyboard designs. But he took one look at the TouchStream and made what he calls a “small investment in the company.” He is helping them design future models. “I am not working for the company as a paid consultant,” he wrote to me in an e-mail message, “but I am trying to help them to get the very best out of what they have developed, because I think it can have enormous benefits for many users.” If I were feeling warning pains in my fingers, I would try the TouchStream keyboard before trying one of the speech-to-text systems, since the TouchStream retains a greater measure of control, and the errors are my own, not the product of an algorithm. I wrote this article mostly using the keyboard. It was tentative work. But when it came time to finish the job, I did it with a standard, frustration-free keyboard. Which leads me to another question. Will enough people be willing to train themselves to make these keyboards a commercial success? Will enough lawyers? I don’t know. I would never have expected that millions of people would train themselves to write using a new version of the alphabet, but millions, in fact, do, every day, on the teeny little box on the bottom of the screen of their Palms or Handsprings. If I’d been able to predict that one — well, let’s just say I wouldn’t need to type for a living. John Schwartz is a reporter for The New York Times. E-mail: [email protected].

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