From time to time my Microsoft Natural Keyboard raises a few eyebrows around the place, and people wonder how on earth I can use something like it. The answer is, without too much difficulty. You do need to be able to touch type (or a reasonable approximation at any rate) and it does take a bit of getting used to, but once you’re used to it, you’ll never want to go back to a conventional one.
I was always a tad sceptical about these things but a few years back I got hold of one that a local company was throwing out and decided to give it a try. The idea behind it is to prevent or reduce RSI (repetitive strain injury) and it does seem to make it quite a bit easier, that’s for sure. A year or so ago I bashed my wrists and they were pretty sore for a few days, during which I noticed a big difference between the natural keyboard (which was still quite comfortable) and my laptop keyboard (which was actually rather painful).
Having said that, it’s still not perfect. I find it particularly tiring on my right arm reaching for the mouse all the time, and I suspect that a trackball in the middle of the keyboard would be a far better idea. It really sucks that a lot of programs still seem to rely pretty heavily on the mouse to the extent that usability with a keyboard is difficult if not downright impossible. It’s lazy programming, and it has important implications for accessibility. There is also quite a bit of stretching involved when you are programming: reaching for keys like the curly brackets and so on can put quite a lot of strain on your pinky.
I am rather interested in the more heavily adapted keyboards such as the Kinesis contoured keyboards, or the Maltron keyboard. Yes, they look weird, but they are heavily researched and contoured to fit the hands and minimise strain. They also have clusters of keys for your thumbs including things like the cursor keys, control, alt, page up and page down, to ease the strain on your little fingers and minimise arm and wrist movement. The Maltron keyboard even claims to have achieved recovery from RSI in some users.
Unfortunately they are very expensive (the Maltron costs £375 for the basic model, or £435 for the version with a trackball; the Kinesis is somewhat cheaper) but if you spend a lot of time on the computer as I do, they could be well worth it. I’m admittedly a little bit concerned about the whole RSI thing, so I may invest in one at some stage, or at the very least ask for a trial. So, if you see me with an even weirder looking keyboard than ever some day, you’ll know why.