Bored With Keys?

A new virtual device uses exciting technology to provide a clean interface.

GERMS are the last things you want to find occupying your workspace, especially in a health care facility, but it's nearly impossible to eliminate them all, given the propensity for sanitary rule-breaking that occurs among any human population. A recent study conducted at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago focused on one particular culprit of germ spreading, the ubiquitous computer keyboard, and found potentially harmful bacteria can survive there for prolonged periods of time, increasing the likelihood they will be transmitted to your hands.

Just think of your own keyboard: A quick glance into its recesses reveals a disgusting array of dust particles and odd, undistinguishable fragments, while an inspection of the keys themselves sometimes yields an unsightly vision of sticky surface residue (especially for you snackers). It's not hard to understand why bacteria have a fondness for these typing tools. So is there a solution to the dirty keyboard dilemma beyond canned air and Q-Tips®? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Put on the Red Light
The Bluetooth Virtual Keyboard, designed by VKB Inc. (Virtual Keyboards), provides an answer to this cleaning conundrum by converting any flat, cleanable surface into a user interface. In simple terms, the pocket-sized device projects a keyboard onto a surface by illuminating a holographic element with a red diode laser. So what you see is a glowing red keyboard image that you can type on as though it were actually there. Your interactions with the surface reflect light and direct it toward a sensor module that then interprets keystrokes and communicates them to external devices such as laptops, PDAs, or cellphones.

Though the virtual keyboard is simply a cool idea in and of itself, it has significant potential in applications that require sterile environments (hospitals, clinical settings, cleanrooms, etc.) where standard computer keyboards can easily become contaminated. It also can benefit applications in areas where dirt and grease make it challenging to carry out clean recordkeeping procedures.

You could imagine any number of scenarios where a virtual keyboard could be an asset, but there are some limitations to the technology that VKB Senior Vice President Mario Neves made clear. One of the most obvious drawbacks, he said, is that you couldn't use this device effectively in very bright environments or where there wasn't a flat surface. He also stressed the virtual keyboard is targeted to users who need to enter only limited data.

"One of the handicaps of the technology is that, because you have no tactile feedback, you make a lot of mistakes and lose patience if you have to type for a long time. And, your eyes get tired of looking at an infrared light," said Neves.

So Put Away Your Keyboard
Despite these setbacks, the technology opens up some pretty interesting directions. For one thing, the keyboard template doesn't have to be projected. It can be printed or embossed onto a flat, inert surface--either fixed or portable--which means you could have a thin piece of plastic or a countertop custom designed for your interface needs. According to Neves, VKB is working with technology companies to develop medical equipment (such as X-ray machines) with embedded sensors and fixed keyboard templates so doctors and nurses can access vital patient information during operations without the hassle and bacteria worries of traditional keyboards.

Aside from issues of cleanliness, Neves pointed out that virtual keyboard technology helps simplify mechanical parts, thereby making it a cost-effective option. "In industrial applications," Neves said, "the technology brings a lot of value, and one of it is cost benefits. Wherever you have buttons, you have mechanics, and those can be replaced by a low-cost sensor." For instance, in work environments that require access control devices, a sensor could be embedded in the wall and a template printed on the surface, instead of using a typical keypad that would have to be periodically replaced due to wear and tear.

While some of these innovations are in the testing phase, the Bluetooth Virtual Keyboard is available for purchase. Though it might not be the best tool for typing your novel or doctoral thesis, it will work great in your germ-laden doctor's office while you eat your bag of Cheetos® and spill your coffee.

To purchase a Virtual Keyboard or to obtain a more detailed, technical description of its process and components, visit www.virtual-laser-keyboard.com.

This column appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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