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The Potential Health Risks of Multitouch Devices

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Multitouch user input is the current “latest big thing” in mobile computing. With the runaway popularity of Apple’s iPhone and iPad, and the company’s pioneering multitouch laptop trackpads now being busily copied across the industry, some suggest that multitouch devices will soon displace the traditional mouse.

However, revolutions in user input technology can result in unforeseen consequences, an emblematic example being the spike in repetitive stress injury that resulted from the switch from traditional “springy,” raked typewriter keyboards to flatter, often “clicky,” and frequently hard-landing, computer keyboards back in the ’80s.

Analogically, little is yet known about long-term stresses that using multitouch input systems may inflict on our muscles, nerves, and tendons.


Arizona State University Biomedical Informatics Department assistant professor Kanav Kahol is team leader of a research project to measure the amount of stress placed on hands and wrists of individuals using multitouch electronic devices like Apple’s iPad. Researchers will use cyber-gloves to measure kinematic phenomena produced in users interacting with multitouch systems with finger-flick gestures.

Prof. Kahol’s team, supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, includes computer interaction researchers, kinesiologists and ergonomic experts from both ASU and Harvard University, engaged in developing a tool kit that could be used by designers as they design and refine new multitouch systems.

The ASU project’s aim is to develop best practices and standards for human/machine interface interactions that are safe and cause minimal user stress, while allowing users to fully benefit from the new levels of immersion that multitouch interaction facilitates.

“We Are All Part of a Large Experiment”

“When we use our iPhone or iPad, we don’t naturally think that it might lead to a musculoskeletal disorder,” says Prof. Kahol commenting in an ASU media release. “But the fact is it could, and we don’t even know it. We are all part of a large experiment. Multitouch systems might be great for usability of a device, but we just don’t know what it does to our musculoskeletal system.”

In a project abstract, Prof. Kanol notes that the researchers’ principal focus will lie in developing a methodology and process for selecting ergonomically appropriate gestures and mapping them relative to tasks employed in human computer interaction, such as the multitouch technology that has reached maturity in products like the iPhone.

Prof. Kahol observes that as we move toward a world where human-computer interaction is based on various body movements that are not well documented or studied, we face “serious and grave risk” of creating technology and systems that may lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), and that many of today’s multitouch systems give no consideration to eliminating gestures already known to lead to MSD injuries, or to eliminating gestures that are symptomatic of a patient population.

For example, he points out that the gesture for zoom function with the iPhone is exactly the same gesture used for detection of Parkinsons disease (PD), since people in early stages of PD can’t execute this gesture, which means that iPhones are not usable by PD patients or people who may go on to develop PD — just one example on how gestures wrongly chosen for multitouch interaction can alienate certain populations or cause muscle fatigue and other ergonomic issues. Kanov contends that it is important to address this issue before we create another man-made diseases like carpal tunnel syndrome — which he calls “a hallmark of bad interaction design.”

The overall methodology to develop ergonomic gestures involves development of accurate multi-digit hand movement simulations that can predict muscle fatigue due to gestures. This enables developers to select a vocabulary of gestures that can be mapped onto task hierarchies derived through task analysis.

The project’s initial focus will to evaluate the impact multitouch devices have on the human musculoskeletal system. Users will be fitted with electromyography (EMG) equipment to measure muscle forces, and cyber-gloves to measure kinematic features produced while users interact with multitouch systems. Researchers will then evaluate the impact of those stresses.

Part two of the study will develop biomechanical models where users will be able to, as Prof. Kahol explains, “enter the motion of a gesture, and the system will produce the forces being exerted through that motion, like a specific movement of the hand. We would then take this data back to the Microsofts, the Apples and other manufacturers so they could use it when they are designing new devices.”

The system the team develops is to be built with off-the-shelf components and provide device designers a new tool to use when developing new multitouch systems.

“The designers, the computer scientists, the programmers, they know little about biomechanical systems, they just want a system that they can employ in a usable manner and tells them if a gesture causes stress or not,” says Kahol. “So our major challenge is going to be developing the software, the tool kit and the underlying models that will drive the tool kits.” He notes that the last time designers developed a fundamental interaction system with computers they modified the standard keyboard — a transition that as noted above, was not without its share of drawbacks.

“When we developed the keyboard, we didn’t think through how working with it would affect the hands, arms, etc.,” Kahol said in a statement earlier this month. “As a result, it created a multimillion dollar industry in treating carpal tunnel syndrome. That is what we want to prevent with multitouch systems. We are going for the preventative, rather than the curative. Multitouch systems might be great for usability of a device, but we just don’t know what it does to our musculoskeletal system.”

Now, hopefully we will.

16 Responses to “The Potential Health Risks of Multitouch Devices”

  1. Doesn’t this kind of thing just fan the flames of over-priced useless ergo-products, health & safety nutters, unionists, lawyers and the lazy?

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m far too young to be having back-pain from using a computer incorrectly, but we make our beds right? Good exercise, avoiding prolonged use and common sense has saved us from trouble for thousands of years. I’d bet the ancient Egyptians had more to worry about in their repetitive work with poor posture.

  2. Someone’s scrounging for grant money in a tough time for getting grants no doubt. So, let’s stir up some hysterical nonsense like this.

    RSI – repetitive stress injury. I’ve covered this story a few times in my newsie days. The key letter here – R is for repetitive. Now, so far my experience wiht the iPad is that I have a much wider range of movements with my hands than I do with a computer keyboard. As far as my non-scientific, or statistically significant expereince goes, I’d say the chances are that multi-touch systems are going to be better for us than the classic keyboard could possibly be.

  3. What a lengthy article. The author is just beating around the bush. Why can’t he simply list the points 1, 2, and 3. Moreover, the outcome of such researches is usually challenged by yet another so called Scientific Research.

    As said in many existing comments, we do more physical activity in our lives daily.

  4. Yes, I’ll do it – once in a great while; but, as a general rule, I have to give a failing grade to sleazy headlines that have no validity when you get to the body of the article.

    The research is exploratory. Not even anecdotal evidence of a problem. You’d be better off upsetting old-fashioned editors and offer something with a question mark.

  5. I use a computer all day for work and the use of the iPad for casual things has actually reduced strain from carpal tunnel. So I agree, they are focused on the negative and not the benefits. Any repetitive action has consequences, so it is nice to be able to interact in different ways with a computer to reduce strain.

  6. I don’t want to pretend I’m smarter or know more about kineology than the scientists (I don’t), but man, there’s like millions of gestures we execute every day – are they all potentially dangerous? (Not saying that absolutely can’t be, I’m just interested.)

  7. Every time there is a new, really great device on the market (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.), someone starts warning that it presents a health risk. We don’t need a nanny. These researchers should mind their own business. The iPad is not a health risk, and neither is the iPhone.

  8. If those “professors” have nothing to study about that is more important, than you should be sent to the oil disaster in the gulf.
    Greetings from Europe – spill baby spill – ?!

  9. This has crossed my mind. It is a valid concern. Repetitive motions do lead to physical problems. Even exercises won’t help you if you perform repetitive motions and don’t rest or stretch properly to prevent damage of tendons, muscles or other tissue.

  10. If you think about it, all you are doing is touching things. you wouldnt worry about repetitive stress disorder touching your wife, or turning the pages of a book.

    gestures are also nothing to worry about. In short, all movements that are natural and do not cause stress to perform (Such as the angle required for your wrists to type on the keyboard i am typing on now) will not result in any long term degenetive stress injury

  11. Oh, brother. This is what scientists do with money provided for research? Give me a break. Here’s the answer to the research… do more physical activity with your hands than just playing video games, clicking buttons on the TV remote, and using multitouch devices. I’ll take my $1.2 million now, thanks.

    • Yeah I agree with you, I’m a scientist and I believe in the importance of science but, for God’s sake, this is a problem that can be solved just being a little clever and thinking a little bit about how your daily activities may harm your health. There are many research areas which are far more important than this and need that money: cancer, aids, cardiovascular, neurological research… and this are just a few

  12. I believe if we take care of ourselves through regular injection of an aggressive exercise regime in our routines, we would not face any such disorders.
    Also dont you think, you are only looking at it from a negative perspective.
    By this approach (your reference to Typewriters being replaced by new age computer mouse and keyboards and other such examples), you mean to say we were better off working in a paper and pen environment and would have been much better millions of pages more in our files across nation and the globe?