Click Away the Pain

The age of computers has left many painfully bent out of joint, but a new device is designed to bring us back into alignment.

I don’t know how I lived without the scroll wheel on my computer mouse. In this day and age of never having enough time for anything, this one tiny item allows me to quickly scroll through a document or a Web page at blazing speeds as my ADHD demands more and more.

With that in mind, when I first received the center- pointing Trackbar EmotionTM,my eyes were immediately drawn to the scroll wheel at its center, which was noticeably larger. The easiest way to compare the two would be to say that if the former were the wheel on a sports car, the latter would belong to a monster truck. Directly above the wheel was a silver scrolling “taskbar,” a device roughly 4 to 5 inches long that scrolls up and down and moves to the left and right, allowing for 360 degrees of movement. On the bottom half of the device rests a set of four large, silver buttons. The top two buttons work as the right and left click features on a traditional mouse and the bottom two function as forward and back navigation buttons, which are pretty useful when Web surfing. All of the buttons can be reprogrammed to fit users’ needs.

The science behind this device is quite simple. Centering it in front of their keyboards allows users to keep their hands together in a more natural position—as opposed to the outstretched arm position of a traditional computer mouse—thereby keeping their bodies symmetrically aligned toward the computer and reducing the amount of movement and tension experienced during use.Whether you call it Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Repetitive Stress Syndrome, or the European term “Mouse Arm Syndrome,” all of these occurrences cause varying degrees of pain and numbness in the fingertips, hands, arms, and shoulders, which can be greatly relieved or eliminated by reducing the amount of movement necessary.

Putting It to the Test
I made a concerted effort to use this device for one month, during which I intentionally kept my regular mouse connected in order to gauge whether the Trackbar Emotion’s ease of use was able to curb my tendency to switch back to mousing as usual. I marveled at how easy it is to navigate the pointer with the taskbar, which seemed extremely responsive to the slightest movement.Mike Sjöblom, president of the Sweden-born Euro Office, which makes the device, said this is because it employs more than twice the sensor power of a traditional computer mouse. “We have two optical sensors, each 1,000 dpi—which you can relate with a traditional mouse, which usually has only one optical sensor with 800 dpi,” he said.

It sounded great. But when it came time to click onto something, I found I was all thumbs. I’m not used to clicking with my thumbs, and although you can click down on the scroll bar with your index fingers for a double click, in the process of pushing it down it always seemed to roll a little in one direction or another, moving the pointer away from my intended target. This doubleclick function can be turned off by holding down the two lower buttons and the taskbar at the same time for three seconds, but it didn’t address my clicking problem. The answer came in the form of a little gray button underneath the device. Should users decide they prefer to use the device upside-down, with the buttons on the top, controlled by their index fingers, and the taskbar at the bottom, navigated by their thumbs, they need only to press the button once and all controls are reversed 180 degrees. This configuration seemed more natural to me as my thumbs found it easier to navigate the taskbar while my index fingers clicked away.

An extra feature on the device is a microphone, which is intended to allow users to employ voice commands through the use of the latest computer operating systems’ voice recognition engines. “What we did was to back that up with a high-quality microphone into the mouse, so now you can actually replace mouse clicks with voice commands,” said Sjöblom, adding that this also reduces the number of user clicks, lessening the chance of an injury.

“What we base everything on is as little interaction [as possible] between people and the machines. Therefore, you don’t expose yourself to injuries.”

The Verdict
After one month, I found myself using the device merely as a wrist rest while typing, deferring to the ease of use and speed of my traditional scroll wheel mouse when deadlines loomed. That is not to say the device is not without its merits or isn’t worth its hefty $99 price tag. Those suffering with pain would probably be more willing to take the time to learn and customize their device for their particular needs, eventually providing them the relief they seek and thus making it a sound investment.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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