Bored With Keys?
A new virtual device uses exciting technology to provide a clean interface.
- By Emily Bryant
- Aug 01, 2005
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
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
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
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
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 &
This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.