The Floating Arms keyboard

From an article in today’s NY Times by my friend Peter Wayner:

Some people are so devoted to their keyboard that they search for backups and worry about finding another copy of a discontinued version. Jon Udell, a senior technical evangelist for Microsoft who suffers from repetitive stress problems, uses a Floating Arms keyboard last manufactured in the 1990s. The device incorporates the left part of the keyboard into the left armrest and the right half into the right armrest. The weight of the arms is carried by the rests, which put the hands in the optimal position to stroke the keys. It is the ultimate synthesis of easy chair and keyboard.

“[If you are a touch typist] your hands never cross the center line anyway,” explained Mr. Udell. “This way you take all the weight off your shoulders, all the tension off your neck, you straighten your back, and you breathe better.”

What will he do if it breaks? He hopes someone else builds another version because nothing else comes close for him.

“It’s been a godsend and I don’t know what I’ll do without it,” he said, fingers crossed.

Here’s the picture of my beloved “Captain Kirk chair” that we ran in BYTE in 1996:

The Floating Arms Keyboard, from Workplace Designs ((612) 439-4474), addresses postural problems associated with the traditional desk, keyboard, and chair. A BYTE editor found that switching to this keyboard greatly reduced work-related pain.

From that article:

Understanding keyboards is a complex research task. “That is because the problem is multifactoral,” says Cathy Mishek O’Brien, president and CEO of Workplace Designs (Stillwater, MN), which sells the Floating Arms Keyboard.

Thanks again Cathy. If you should happen to find this, I’d love to hear more from you about the story of this product: how it was developed, why it was discontinued. It’s hard for me to understand why a product that was so revolutionary, and is so effective, didn’t succeed.

34 Comments

  1. I _need_ this chair/keyboard setup worse than bad. I’ve dreamt about such a setup, imagined making such a thing myself. They don’t make it anymore? Terribly short-sighted. Bet it would sell now that so many more of us are older, richer, and in pain.

  2. I’m not surprised it failed. The market for this is people who:
    1. are early adopters
    2. control their own budgets
    3. can touch type.

    Even if Workplace Designs had had a Steve Jobs to tell us that the unusual look of this is cool rather than nerdy, I doubt it could have taken off. The intersection of those three criteria is just too small.

    That said, if anybody is crazy enough to put these back into production, they will find me at the head of the queue to buy one. I can touch-type, I control my own budget, and I have wanted one every since I first saw this photo in Byte.

  3. That’s very cool, I’ve used a “broken” keyboard for years but that kind of separation is taking it up another level. The problem is that people tend to be as picky about chairs as the are about keyboards, add that to the problems Ian mentions and you’ve got a tough sell.

    I’ve thought about getting one of these:
    http://www.maltron.com/maltron-kbd-dual.html

    not as cool but it is commercially availible, but it looks like something you’d see in a factory.

  4. Same here, except for me it’s the MS Natural Keyboard, original version, I dread the day when none are left on Ebay…I only have 1-2 backups, sigh…I probably should try to get 1-2 more…if anyone has one to sell for a reasonable price, please answer here, all reasonable offers will be considered.
    Thank you, Tom

  5. Here’s a random thought: if you plugged in two regular keyboards do they both work? I may have to give that a shot – and it could upgrade to wireless.

  6. Ian:

    > I’m not surprised it failed. The market for > this is people who:
    > 1. are early adopters
    > 2. control their own budgets
    > 3. can touch type.

    John:

    > if you plugged in two regular keyboards
    > do they both work?

    I’m thinking about Make Magazine projects like printers that transfer digital images to your latte foam, or solar-powered theremins. The folks who do these wacky fun things are the very ones who have the skills to create DIY kits for products like this which may otherwise be uneconomical.

    I wonder if there’s a service waiting to be born that connects the people with the skills to the people with the needs.

  7. Hi Jon,

    At work I have a 667 mhz celeron with

    Win98SE & ps2 mouse & keyboard & usb mouse

    & keyboard.

    Both keyboards & both mice work! I suppose

    you could substitute a wireless pair in

    there & then you would only have 2 cables

    to clamp to chair.

    YMMV.

    Thanks

    Sine Nomine

  8. I am a touch-typist, but I can never use any of these “split” keyboards because my hands (or fingers, anyhow) *do* cross the center line; I press the keys with whatever finger happens to be most convenient, not following some strict finger key allocation scheme. In addition, I find keyboards that are angled outwards to put more stress on my wrists than rectangular keyboards, but this is probably due to the relatively large size of my hands; although at least this particular keyboard (can I still call it that?) doesn’t suffer from that problem.

  9. Great article John. I face a similar dilemma with my DataHand Pro II keyboard. DataHand has struggled to maintain a manufacturing partner, and my keyboard is now over 10 years old.

    1. Todd, I am selling my datahand keyboard. It’s in good condition. If you’re interested you can respond to my ad at madison.craigslist.org/sys/1546153154.html

      Thanks.

  10. I had one of these for years at a prior job (10 years ago now – getting old!). My desk was a custom fab job built to hold four 21″ CRT’s using and we had to use special Matrox video cards since Win2K wouldn’t support “multimonitor” out of the box.

    I’ve tried to find and purchase one of these for years now but Kinesis (http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/index.htm) doesn’t make or sell them anymore. I’ve searched ebay and can never find them.

    It was truly the best keyboard I’ve ever used…wish they’d make them again…

  11. I too have been looking for a split keyboard. If anyone has found a two keyboard solution, please let me know.

  12. I’ve used the Floating Arms for 10+ years until it recently gave out. I spent hours and hours searching the Internet in hopes of another one to no avail. I was hoping Kinesis would see enough of these posts to find it enough of a demand to recreate the split keyboard. Keeping my fingers crossed!

  13. I’ve contacted Kenesis a few times in the past to ask if they’d consider re-making these and they are not interested. Too bad! I wonder if they’d make a set amount.. going to contact them again

  14. I have been using Maltron keyboards for over ten years and would not do without them. Okay, the casing is not as slick as the Kinesis Advantage etc, but the keys are top quality individual Cherry switches rather than membranes and I have never had a failure. And I didn’t buy them for the looks.
    As I couldn’t touch type when I got the first one, I went for the Maltron layout rather than Qwerty or Dvorak (you can make 7641 words from the Maltron ‘home’ keys compared to 195 for Qwerty) and picked it up easily.
    I also use a CyKey ‘chording’ key pad with my laptops (even my 17″ is too cramped for extensive work) and with my latest desktop, pending getting another Maltron. Since it’s only 5×3 inches and less than 1/2″ thick (plus the USB infra-red sensor) it’s ideal for mobile computing. I have it set up left-handed so that my right hand can stay on my trackball when I’m working.

  15. The reason this company failed was probably due to a combination of marketing and timing. When this came out, not many people had yet experienced a significant amount of wrist pain – plus those that had it were probably not getting good information on how to fix (I am one of those people).

    Today, in 2010, with so many more people spending so much more time in front of a computer (the US being a “knowledge worker based economy” now) – I suspect this product might work.

    However, in sales we always say that prevention doesn’t sell, cure does. Millions of people OUGHT to be using this, but how many will…?

    I’m at a crossroads in my career. I cannot continue to work on a computer without this type of design. I’m going to have to try to build the thing myself.

  16. Really? Please do stay in touch and let me know if you succeed.

    Meanwhile, I wonder what is the equivalent of a LazyWeb request in the world of atoms instead of bits? How do you present a problem to the Maker community? Hmm. I know whom to ask.

  17. I worked for Workplace Designs back in the day when they were starting out ini Stillwater MN. I was only 18 years old at the time and tested the Floating Arm Keyboards, a bit of assembly off the units, and also getting them up on the internet and search engines. This was a cool company to work for and Cathy was a great person to work for. Their product was expensive, complicated, and manufactured in small quanitities. Their products were far ahead of their time and out of the reach for most mainstream computer users.

  18. Their products were far ahead of their time and out of the reach for most mainstream computer users.

    Well, it’s been a life-changer for me. I wish there were a way to resurrect it as a boutique offering.

  19. “I wish there were a way to resurrect it as a boutique offering.”

    I have called Workplace Designs several times per year and spoken to their sales team about a short run production – they are not interested. I have been trying to locate a set for the last 5 years and no one wants to give theirs up.

  20. Hi Jon — periodically I do a web trawl hoping to find another ‘floating arms’ keyboards for sale. I’ve got one that I bought in 1997 from Cramer/Workplace Designs and in 2008 after a few keys stopped working I was able to locate another one for sale on the web (I believe it was the only and maybe the last one offered for sale!) which I grabbed — and on which I’m typing this reply. Back in 1997 after having carpal tunnel surgery on both hands, I got my then-employer to pick up the cost of the keyboard + chair and I’ve never stopped using it since. Frankly, I still don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have one of these. Interestingly I did see one of these on a Microsoft TV ad the other night — maybe it was yours!

    Anyway, just wanted to reach out to a fellow “Floating-Armer”.

    Roger

    1. Wow. I guess we are members of a very small club. I don’t usually get sentimental about orphan technologies but this one, well, you know.

      1. Jon, I have two floating keyboard sets!! I bought one From Cathy in 1994 and used it up until a year ago, and the other one was a gift from a friend of mine. I was not sure how to put them up for sale, and I must have somehow reached your website earlier this year. I am at morteasy@aol.com
        Fran

      1. I have two, if you are ever interested! One is old but functional, and the other is fairly new and still quite wonderful.

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