Fri, 15 Mar 2013

Dancing Desk

Fun fact: I never had dancing classes

It’s nothing new that sitting a lot isn’t beneficial to your health. That’s why more and more people jump onto the standing desk bandwagon. Over 2 years ago I wanted to do the same. But I didn’t. I kept my complacent ass conveniently situated on a chair in front of my computer. But then I developed a rather annoying case of runner’s knee, which hurt more while sitting than standing. This was enough motivation for me to start standing while working at the computer. Hooray!

Making a stand

I started like so many others do: I put my screens, keyboard and trackball on cardboard boxes. Which was nice. Cheap. But sucked, because it forced me to stand still while typing. And when I’m in the flow, then.. things can take a while. After the first few days my legs became more muscular and everything was gr.. well, no, it was actually fluid building up in my legs.

Standing still sucks. Furthermore ‘professional’ solutions of standing desks cost an arm and two legs. Though the sheer size of my swollen legs may have brought the price down to both legs only and no arms, but that was still more than I was willing to spend on something less than optimal.

I immediately dismissed a treadmill desk, because I want to be in control of my movement while I’m in the flow, without having to interface with another device. Regulating speed is a great flow-breaker, I guess. But I quickly realised that some way to walk freely while typing would be my preferred solution.

Epic FAiL

My stupid first shot at this, was hanging my MS Natural Keyboard 4000 with a strap around my neck. … It doesn’t work. It’s heavy, hurts the neck, wobbles around, and typing on it is what the real definition of Gorilla Arms should be. Nonetheless, I tried it for 2 or 3 days and while it was painful I enjoyed the freedom to move around while typing, so I knew I was onto something. It only needed to suck less.

Mark 1

Instead of Gorilla Arms I wanted the keyboard to be where my hands fall naturally when they are relaxed. Which is, not suprisingly, at the outside of my legs instead of in the front. That’s where the keys needed to be. So I needed a real split keyboard and a way to mount it on my legs. A saw for the keyboard and titanium screws to mount it were not an option, but thanks to Kinesis (Freestyle) and the military (leg bases) both problems could be solved easily. See exhibit #1 to the right.

For an alpha version it worked remarkably well and I enjoyed using it. Getting used to the fact that I could actually move around while wearing the keyboard and type at the same time took a while. Of course there were still a few annoyances I had to take care of. First of all the trackball was located at an inconvenient spot. I had to move my elbow quite far to the back to reach it. Not very ergonomic. Quite the opposite to what I set out to achieve. It was also in the way when I wanted to sit or lay down. Like on a couch, at the psychiatrist’s they sent me to: OMG, a nutjob wearing a keyboard. Hide the children! Well, in fact it was a neurologist and I went there because of my Carpal tunnel, which turned out to be perfectly fine. Anyway, he told me that he sees more and more patients who have problems with their Nervus Ulnaris because they have to bend their elbows while sitting and working at a computer. Ever had a tingling or numb sensation in your pinky? That’s most likely the culprit. But not so with the Dancing Desk. No bending or stretching of this nerve. He commented that this Dancing Desk might very well be the best solution for your arms while working with a computer. Thank you very much.

The first improvement I made, was moving the trackball to the belt, which is a much better location. In fact it’s freely movable along the belt to where it feels most comfortable. This does reintroduce bending the elbow however, but at a larger angle. The resting position of my hands is still the keyboard, hence no bending. After all, I am a command-line/Vim/Pentadactyl kinda guy, so I only use the trackball for games and photo editing anyway.

Mark 2

As noted in another post, I was addicted to the back button on my mouse. Since the old Logitech Trackball Marble didn’t have one, I decided to buy the current Logitech Trackball, despite my dislike of wireless stuff (changing batteries, etc.). Quick note: I only had to change the battery once, after 1.5yrs. Impressive!

With the wired trackball gone and the new receiver plugged directly into the computer, there was no need for the USB-hub anymore.

Regarding the USB hub I’d like to add, that a tiny 3 port hub might not be such a bad idea, as it would allow connecting the keyboard and trackball to different computers by changing one cable only. But as I don’t do that very often I simply dis-/connect the keyboard and trackball-receiver separately. However, one free USB port right there at your disposal can be very handy indeed. Say to connect a USB headset or load your mobile phone while talking, etc.

Dances With Cables

And with this configuration I lived happily ever after. Not really. One thing I haven’t talked about is the cable connecting the two parts of the keyboard. While I bought the one with the longer cable, it was still rather short. Well, for what I used the keyboard anyway. I’m not sure anyone at Kinesis had ever considered this usage scenario. Massive oversight of them!

I dubbed the whole thing Dancing Desk, in analogy to Standing and Treadmill Desks, because it allows you to dance, among other things. I know that numerous programmers use music to help them enter the flow. So do I. And if I’m in the flow I sometimes like to move to the music. As do the best of us:

But while he has to move back to the keyboard to type, I can type wherever and whenever I want. Even while dancing! Ha, eat this you and your multi-headed hydra!

The result of this dancing is a lot of wiggling of the cable. Sometimes rather harsh dragging. And sometimes even close to ripping the thing apart. Surprisingly enough the cable survived the torture for about 6 months. Then suddenly the keys T, G and B stopped working. But only occasionally and depending on my pose. Then the next column started to malfunction. And after a few days I was standing in most awkward poses just to make the left half of the keyboard work at all. The cable needed to be replaced.

I wasted too many hours looking for a matching connector online, trying to solder/crimp a cable with this TINY connector from scratch, until I dumped this approach. Instead I decided to simply take the old connectors with a bit of cable and put the new cable in between. I was not sure if this would work, because I didn’t know where the cable was broken exactly. Luckily for me the broken part of the cable was not near the connectors.

Mark 3

Of course I did not only repair the cable, but made it much longer in the process. In fact, long enough to have the cable run along the belt. From then on there were no more restrictions on the freedom of movement, nor any wiggling.

And this is what I’m using today and have been using for the last 2 years. I still enjoy it and love the ability to move around freely, dance, jump, run, .. while being able to type.

Word of caution

Let me just add a final word of caution: Simply standing up/dancing doesn’t solve problems with your posture or results thereof. In fact it might increase or accelerate any damage done because of bad posture. I had my fair share of problems while sitting, and things spiralled out of control when I started to stand. But it’s not like standing was the source of the problems, it just accelerated what would have happened anyway. Maybe a few months or a year later. So I had a few sessions with a great physiotherapist who taught me a lot about my body. It enhanced my awareness in regards to my muscles, tendons and bones and increased my health and well-being overall, in addition to teaching me how to stand or sit correctly. I can only advice you strongly, that whatever you do, find a professional who can teach you those things and help you prevent any long lasting negative effects on your health.

Further improvements

  • Kinesis introduced a successor to the Freestyle, aptly called Freestyle2, which is thinner. But I don’t know if it is any lighter. After all, normally a heavy keyboard is better, as it prevents it from sliding around. However, the heaviest part of the keyboard is the metal plate seen on the picture. I guess it could be replaced by something else (e.g. aluminium).
  • Even better would be a matrix-style keyboard like the TypeMatrix. Sadly there is no split variant available.
  • Don’t be connected to a stationary computer, but use a notebook in a backpack. Or even just a Raspberry Pi directly on the belt, connected to the actual machine via WiFi and SSH. The only problem remaining is the visual output. I don’t know how good Google Glasses will be for a lot of text, but at a price of 1500USD I don’t really care anyway. I’m much more interested to know how the Occulus Rift can handle text and if it could be used to replace a screen for programming or actual work. Of course a camera would be needed to underlay your surrounding on your desktop, screen, .. thingy, while wearing the Rift, to prevent you from running headlong into the nearest wall. Or fall of a cliff, heck, I don’t know where you would use a setup like this… Update 2013-03-23 08:37: Sounds like it won’t be any good for working with text, according to ryg. :(

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