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Protomic DataStealth

The Protomic DataStealth is an elusive monoblock split from the '90s, designed by Benjamin Rossen.

KBD.news
Published January 8, 2022

The DataStealth was an ergonomic keyboard project and a series of different models developed at about the turn of the Millennium: with keypad halves raised to 45 degrees, chording support, etc. The keypad area was gently sculpted and the keys arranged to reflect the finger reach arcs of the users' hands "in both the horizontal and sagittal planes".

The revolutionary DataStealth keyboard is the result of a joint research project with several major Dutch universities. The design incorporates anatomic and ergonomic principles, offering improved comfort and reduced risk of RSI while increasing productivity.

The DataStealth was designed by Benjamin Rossen in 1998-1999 after some experiments with vertical layouts, e.g. the Touch Easy:

After making and discarding several dozen foam models, I returned to a more conventional keyboard design. The challenge was to find a configuration which did not surrender the ergonomic advantages of a vertical configuration, and enabled the keys to remain visible to the user. It was also important to enable the user to rest their hands on the palmar surface to avoid discomfort after long periods of typing. These considerations necessitated surrendering some of the radical ideas – Benjamin Rossen.

Unfortunately, all the images I can find are low-res photos from the early 2000s, like this tiny one – however, a better angle to show the layout and the clever palm rest.

Here is another one showing how bulky the DataStealth was.

In 1998, the keyboard was due to undergo clinical testing:

The keyboard project is still on track, and clinical testing will start soon at the Technical University of Eindhoven, biomechanics in co-operation with the National University of Maastricht, human movement studies – Benjamin Rossen, 1998.

In 1999 the author entered into partnership with Louis Koppes to develop this project further. They took the DataStealth model to the BAI and TAWPI trade shows in the USA to gauge interest from institutions employing heavy duty data entry departments.

Louis Koppes, Managing Director, demonstrating the DataStealth Prototype at TAWPI's 29th annual meeting, August 1-4, 1999, Denver, Colorado, USA.

"This was our initial marketing research exercise. We found a great deal on interest, however, the emphasis lay on productivity rather than ergonomics per se. The lessons we learned here gave impetus and direction to further model improvement, and justified further investment in this project."

The DataStealth keyboard could be used on the lap to relax the shoulders and neck, but it could also be used on the desk: "The wings are designed to tilt the keyboard to the optimum angle for use on a typical desk. This permits variation in posture which helps to keep the data typist alert, and avoids static load induced RSI."

The website given for more manufacturer product information (protonic.com) is long gone but archive.org has some pages.

I quote a few paragraphs to save them from oblivion:

Built-In Hand Rests – The hand supports spare users' arms, shoulders and neck from static load bearing while typing. The entire keypad area can be reached without the user having to raise her hands from the support surfaces.

Sculpted Keypad – The keys are arranged in arcs placed for easy reach. Key cap heights also vary. The little finger, for example, has a shorter distance to travel to depress the keys.

The unique seating posture with "active sitting" (rocking), while using the DataStealth keyboard on the lap, was considered superior to the common usage by the designers:

An angle of 100 to 110 degrees at the elbow has been shown to be optimum for fine motor co-ordination of the fingers.

Active sitting – There is evidence that gentle rocking motion while working helps the typist to concentrate longer on monotonous tasks. The lap position enables the use of a chair with a rocking or spring motion. While the typist moves the keyboard moves in synchrony, enabling continued use without the typist loosing her position on the keyboard.

In 2000, the home page of protonic.com informed visitors:

Protomic is currently in the process of building an improved model of the DataStealth keyboard. We have made several prototypes which are significantly better than our existing model, both in terms of comfort and work productivity potential. The new keyboard is not yet in production. In the meantime, the old model is no longer available. We are keeping a list of interested parties to be informed when the new keyboard is released.

During the few years the DataStealth took its final shape, 24 concept models and 7 different field trial models were made and tested.

While the concept models were comprised of key cradles mounted on a plywood support the complete models were made with plastic housing which fully enclosed the electronics. Most of these models were designed to be placed on the user's lap, and two were designed to be fixed to a desk with an adjustable bracket.

Design and evaluation cycle

It normally took between a week and 10 days to complete the drawings for one model. Laser sintering, painting, assembly and testing usually occupied another week. Re-training the typists generally required a week, even when the keyboards supplied incorporated modifications requested by the typists. It then took at least another month of working with the new keyboard before the data typists were able to say whether the problems they experienced were real or merely artifacts of unfamiliarity with the new design. It took a full year of experimental work to test and evaluate seven designs. By the end of 2001 we were satisfied with the design of model 31.

Alterations to the design

Some unexpected discoveries were made. For example, we found that the complex mode switching and chording options that we had built into our previous models presented an excessive training hurdle when tested in the field. In earlier models we had incorporated the navigation keys, function keys and other special keys into the main keypad are under the users' fingers by means of mode switching. These were re-introduced as separate entities. We moved from a 36 key keyboard to a model once again approaching the standard keyboard in key numbers.

Finally, an insight into the costs of prototyping back in the early 2000s. I guess this one is from the author, however, the original link (from this geekhack thread) doesn't work any more:

One of my projects was concerned with the design and testing of an ergonomically improved keyboard for professional data entry typists. We went through 31 design iterations before making six of them for a field trial. The design process required not only expert knowledge of how to use CAD solid modeling software, knowledge of plastic design, molds, of wall thickness in relation to material strengths, of clickable design for ease of assembly for when (and if) it went into production, and so on and on. These six models (only the last in the series) cost more than my automobile at its new price to make by laser sintering in polyamice, paint, finish, assemble, and test. Each model, that is. Each prototyped keyboard cost more than a new family sedan, and it took me years to get to the final design. That is what making objects from drawings costs.

Published on Sat 8th Jan 2022. Featured in KBD #60 (source).


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