Wacky laptops and forgotten ergonomics

It's been said many times, so we won't labour the point, but laptops just aren't ergonomic. If you design something with the screen stuck to your keyboard, you either end up with people working with a poor neck posture – looking down at the screen, or you end up in some sort of odd bent wrist posture with the keyboard on an upwards slant. Or you try and fudge it somewhere in-between by slumping down in your chair.

We can't choose what we need
Assuming that adequate processing power and battery life and useable software is included in 'Value for money' in our diagram above, then the diagram represents the 4 main areas that people would probably like to take into account when choosing a laptop. The trouble is they can't! Putting aside the hybrid (which we'll come to later) people simply don't have a choice when it comes to physical user ergonomics. The screen is stuck to the keyboard and that's how we make 'em, take it or leave it.

Ergonomics sidelined
In the early days of laptops, if this ergonomic drawback had been taken seriously and more inroads made to design, and normalize the idea of laptops which provided a means of increasing screen height, maybe laptops would have evolved to offer us something a bit less 'un-ergonomic'. However, this didn't happen and it wasn't for want of ideas.

The iconic Dialogue Flybook VM
Take the Dialogue Flybook VM (pic below) as probably the best example. In my view this should be as iconic a piece of design as the iPhone. Okay, maybe that's going a bit far! But in terms of pure physical user ergonomics it is a brilliant piece of design. The screen can be raised on the arm and rotated forward – helping the user adopt a better neck posture and even helping raise the screen when space in front is limited. This design made it's appearance in 2006, a whole decade ago! And it still looks great – maybe a bit chunky by todays standards but that's mostly down to the hardware innards, the screen and the arm still look remarkably low profile even by todays standards.

Image from ohmygizmo

IBM were at it too!

Dialogue weren't the only ones thinking along these lines. IBM, the gurus of patents, submitted U.S Patent 6504707 which as the picture below shows, took a slightly different approach with a dual-arm telescoping and tilting screen.

Image from Google Patents.

So where did it all go wrong!?

Either of these laptops could have offered real ergonomic benefits to mobile workers. So where, from an ergonomics viewpoint, did it all go so wrong!? Why were these designs never championed and licensed, Why weren't they given freedom to evolve? Who really knows, there might be a number of reasons – most likely a combination:

There's little doubt that it would cost more to produce these compared to a conventional hinge laptop.

Technical limitations?
There could be any number of these, for example hinge longevity and strength, processor-screen connectivity issues etc. may have hindered the early developments.

Could it be that the weight of the screens back then (this was 10 years ago) mean that raising the screen and tilting it back could tip the whole machine backwards, onto your coffee, which goes onto your lap?

Laptops need to be portable, and weight quite rightly is a key consideration for most users. Adding a chunky (reliable) hinge mechanism would certainly add to the weight.

Were they really as helpful ergonomically as they initially seem?
For an average proportioned UK male, the screen would need to lift by an additional 325mm or so, to reach the advised ergonomic 'top of screen horizontally in line with the eyes'. Bearing in mind the top of a 12" laptop screen is about 225mm high when open, the height increase needed to properly accommodate an average male would be nearly 1.5 times that existing screen height! That's a pretty tall order and looking at the pictures and diagrams, there doesn't seem to be scope for lifting the screen that high (anthropometric calcs. based on AdultData 1998). None of this is to say the designs wouldn't have meant an improvement in neck posture, just that it wouldn't have been as big an improvement for some people.

On balance I suspect (a bit cynically perhaps) that it was cost; the ergonomist/designer simply wasn't able to convince the accountants that there were: a) significant benefits, which b) consumers would appreciate and pay a premium for.

What about now? Could we reanimate them?

Maybe now, ten years on, some or all of these barriers would be easier to overcome. Things have moved on. Components are cheaper and lighter, reducing the overall cost and weight. Component reliability has most likely increased. More people might be in the target market now, making economy of scale a more viable prospect. And more people are now aware of the drawbacks of conventional laptop design. Many people have found it frustrating, painful even, and might be prepared to try a credible solution along the lines of these designs. Let's be honest if Apple decided to do something like this people would most likely still buy them by the millions, even if they weren't quite as pure aesthetically as the MacBook!!

Has their potential glory day passed?

Now that we're moving into the realm of the hybrid tablet-laptop, there is scope for mobile workers to detach their screen and raise it using a screen riser, and portable screen risers are available. In a sense this means hybrids offer the same ergonomic advantages as these ten year old pieces of design genius (there, I've said it!). On the plus side hybrids can addiitonally convert into a tablet, but on the negative side, to make them truly ergonomic you do need to carry a riser with you, with these laptops you don't. So maybe there is still a market for the telescopic-screened-laptop – albeit a smaller one. I suspect they would make more headway as a business tool if they were competing head-on with the hybrid, which they would be. Or maybe we should just be grateful that the hybrid is finally coming of age, make the most of it and try to forget about the ergonomic utopia that could have been!


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