Depending on whom is keeping score, Windows 8 has been either a rousing success (40 million copies sold in the first 30 days!) or an epic failure (PC laptop sales are expected to plummet 15 percent in the first quarter!). What is undeniable is that consumers want touch not only on tablets, but for traditional clamshell designs. In fact, according to NPD, a quarter of Windows 8 laptops sold in January had a touch screen. However, while Microsoft’s Live Tile interface is best experienced with your finger, it could be hazardous to your health.
While essential for slates, and offering greater functionality for any device, touch-screen notebooks are raising eyebrows among health care professionals. In short, Windows 8 could be called ergonomically challenged, and prolonged use of touch for input could even lead to serious injury.
Repetitive Stress 2.0
Seemingly every new technology that requires physical interaction with humans brings an accompanying and novel new injury. Typewriters, and later keyboards, begat carpal tunnel syndrome; early game consoles gave birth to the joystick wrist (and more recently, gamer’s thumb); cellphones and SMS texting gave rise to BlackBerry thumb; and more recently, smartphones are responsible for so-called “text neck.”
Dr. Emil Pascarelli, who practiced in New York City for decades before recently retiring, said these injuries all fall under the general heading of RSI, or repetitive strain injuries, and are par for the course. “Any new technology is going to have unforeseen issues,” he said. “With [Windows 8] you can surmise that it adds eye-hand motion to the screen, and that’s going to include arm and shoulder motion, so it may tend to fatigue you a lot more if you use this intensely,” Pascarelli said. He added that this type of interaction would add to the postural asymmetries already experienced when you’re sitting at a computer.
Although we reached out to Microsoft for this story, the company did not respond to our request to comment.
Pascarelli, who literally wrote the book on RSI in 1994 (“Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide”), said that the condition describes a host of ailments, from tendon and muscle strains and tears to nerve issues and chronic pain. “RSI is not a specific illness; it can give you any number of issues,” he said.
Now, we all get aches and pains and sore muscles that go away. However, untreated RSI can in extreme cases leave sufferers with chronic pain and even permanent loss of movement in their fingers, hands or arms. “It’s a very serious illness,” Pascarelli said.
Putting the OS Before the User
Cindy Burt, the Injury Prevention Division Manager at UCLA’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, used to treat RSI as a physical therapist. “We would fix these people, they would return to their work stations and then come right back to us,” Burt said. As a result, Burt began developing ergonomic standards for the workplace and eventually set up the Ergonomics program at UCLA. She said that the credo of ergonomics is “to fit the workplace to the worker, not the other way around.”
In Burt’s estimation, Microsoft broke this cardinal rule in creating Windows 8. “In [designing it] they were looking just at the tech and not at the worker trying to implement the technology to do their work,” she said. So instead of creating an OS that caters to the way a user would optimally interact with a particular device, Windows 8 was designed to work the same way across every device.
While tablet users likely won’t experience issues when using touch, that may not be the case with other devices. In order to touch the display on a notebook with that capability, users either have to fully extend their arm (bad and uncomfortable), lean forward (bad and awkward) or move the display closer (bad for your vision). As Burt pointed out, “You are going to have to be doing a lot more reaching and a lot more movements of your wrist and your hand if you’re going to be typing and then doing the touch screen.”
Health issues are far less likely if touch is limited to occasional use. However, with frequent use, touch displays already have an established track record of causing injury. “One of the earliest applications of touch screens has been at retail checkout counters, like in cafeterias, that sort of thing,” Burt said. Workers have to reach forward out in front of them instead of having their shoulders in a neutral position. As a result, she said, they tend to have a lot of shoulder problems. “One of the problems with a lot of new technologies is that very few people take the time to be adequately trained to use them properly, Burt told us. With touch screens, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.”