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Sharky Extreme : Industry Interviews February 20, 2012
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Industry Interviews

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SharkyExtreme.com: Interview with Microsoft's Dan Odell

By Vangie Beal :  April 17, 2007

Reader Submitted Questions – Microsoft & Ergonomic Products

Aurora asks: One of the most popular Microsoft products that addressed ergonomic issues was the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. Can you tell us about your role in the development of this product?

Dan Odell: The project started over seven years ago with my predecessor, Hugh McLoone, launching a series of studies in partnership with UC Berkeley and the University of Washington, among others. We learned a lot about how people strike keyboard keys, how different keyboard angles and curvature affect posture and preference, wrist rest design, etc. After we pinned down the proper ergonomic layout of the keyboard, the focus turned to getting the details right – the aesthetics of the keyboard, the placement and function of the features, the materials, and the front lift leg. The research that we led really helped to inform the design – leading to a great blend of comfort, beauty and usability.

ua549 asks: I use a pointing stick most of the time on notebook computers; however this feature is not available on stand-alone keyboards. Using the pointing stick along with the mouse and space bar means I can maneuver with two fingers, and without moving my hand. Is this a good set-up in terms of ergonomics, and if so, will Microsoft be working on anything similar to this for keyboards?

Dan Odell: A recent study (Sommerich, 2002) followed the differences in usage patterns between desktop and notebook computer users. One of the most profound findings of this study was that notebook users who used an external pointing device reported a lower incidence of pain when compared with notebook users who used only the notebook's internal pointing device. Our interpretation of this is that external pointing devices are often more comfortable than those built into a keyboard when they are used as the primary pointing device. For other uses, such as off-desktop navigation and media control, it can make sense to include a pointing device in the keyboard. That's why we've incorporated a touchpad into our Wireless Entertainment Desktop series.

PCJ asks: The old IBM keyboards (circa 1990) are still incredibly sought after, any idea on why no company has made an ergonomic equivalent of these keyboards?

Dan Odell: The appeal, and drawback, of these keyboards is their 'clicky' keys. Some people really like the feel of the buckling spring mechanism that these keys employ. However, the result in a very noisy keyboard that disturbs some people. Almost all keyboard manufacturers have moved to either a rubber dome or scissor key mechanism instead.

wh666-666 asks: Manufactures, like Eleksen, offer roll up fabric wireless keyboards. Would a similar device with a mouse built on the same technology help eliminate typical muscle cramps suffered from prolonged mouse usage? Is Microsoft considering any product like this?

Dan Odell: I've never evaluated a fabric keyboard with a built-in mouse, so I'm afraid I can't really comment on that concept. But I'd guess it'd be similar to using a touchpad.

wh666-666 asks: There seems to be a large gap in the market for high durability and simplex items - in a school a typical mouse can be broken through misuse within a fortnight. For disabled users as well as children, some designs can be too complex. Would Microsoft consider a range of "indestructible" ergonomic devices to suit these markets?

Dan Odell: At Microsoft, all of our products are put through extensive reliability and drop testing and we always honor our three year warranty. We aim to provide robust products.

sinnersis asks: Would Microsoft consider a product similar to the Optimus keyboard that has individual customizable screens on each key? If not what considerations, besides costs, prohibited its further development?

Dan Odell: The idea of a keyboard with customizable screens on the keys has been around for quite awhile. The barriers to bringing something like this to market are mainly technological at this point. Beyond cost, reliability and quality are still large hurdles, but I expect that technology will continue to improve and these hurdles will eventually be overcome.

sinnersis asks: Does Microsoft intend to produce more products in its partnership with Razer? Are there any intentions to create a wireless gaming mouse, perhaps one with the precision and quality that Razer wired mice are known for?

Dan Odell: Well I am not the "gaming guy", but I do know that Microsoft has a lot of interest in providing top-of-the-line products to gamers, so definitely keep an eye out for Microsoft gaming products in the future.

sinnersis asks: What is your opinion of the Logitech MX Revolution free spinning scroll wheel? Does Microsoft have any similar innovations up their sleeve or plans to include similar features on its own mouse products?

Dan Odell: I can't really comment on the specifics of Logitech's wheel, but we're always looking at new ways to make scrolling better. For instance, we brought the first tilt wheel to market a few years ago. You can expect to see more upgrades from us in the near future.

wh666-666 asks: Consumers are aware that there are many Microsoft products ergonomically designed on the market, but are there any plans for Microsoft to extend the range of peripherals they offer to create awareness that these products exist to basic users (and obviously generate sales as well)?

Dan Odell: Helping people understand the benefits of choosing ergonomically designed products is one of the key remaining challenges for us. We have some excellent products designed for comfort. Unfortunately, many people wait until they're already experiencing pain or injury before they begin to look for properly designed input devices. We'd really like to help people choose products designed for comfort before they start having problems, so we will continue to innovate in ergonomic product design, as well as try to help people understand more about ergonomics. For instance, in addition to Q&A sessions like this, we recently started a partnership with Boston University that aims to provide ergonomic products and education to middle school students. The hope is that early education will help people avoid some of the serious problems that are associated with poor workstation ergonomics.

Wrap up
There you have it. Those who wanted to know asked Dan Odell from the Microsoft Hardware Group and found out. Our sincere thanks go out to the SharkyForums users for submitting their questions and to Dan Odell at Microsoft for answering!


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Interview with Microsoft's Dan Odell: Part 1

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    Interview with Microsoft's Dan Odell: Part 2