Tech News on G4

Can This Keyboard Save your Life?

July 16, 2010

By Greg Gazin - Apple Gazin’ - G4 Canada

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CleankeysThey are everywhere - homes, offices, airports, classrooms, hospitals and coffee shops just to name a few. And they all come in different shapes and sizes. I'm talking about keyboards. It's hard to go anywhere without seeing one. The problem is they're filthy, dirty and they are making us sick.

"Keyboards are the #1 cause of bacterial infections and are more germ infested than public toilet seats." Randy Marsden, Chief Executive Officer of Edmonton- based Cleankeys Inc. (formerly Madentec Limited).

Marsden insists that many keyboards are never cleaned or disinfected and even those that are, it's not done very effectively. Simply wiping them down doesn't totally clean them. Food particles skin flakes and other bacteria and germs get into all sorts of nooks and crannies where the microscopic creatures thrive. And keyboards often being used by more than one person, especially in public areas make it easy for bacteria to spread.

Cleanable Keyboard - Accidental Discovery

CleankeysSo Marsden invented a cleanable keyboard that significantly reduced bacterial risk to the user. But strangely enough, he came upon the idea by accident.  For over 2 decades, he had been developing Assistive technology products and computer input devices for people with disabilities - people like Muhammad Ali. So when a Dentist from France purchased his TrackerPro- a wireless device that takes the place of a mouse for users with little or no hand movement, Randy's curiosity piqued. So he asked the Dentist, why, when he obviously wasn't disabled. The response was simple - he so he didn't want to keep taking his gloves on and off each time he needed to use the keyboard.

"You can't (properly) wipe down a keyboard. And those that did use a keyboard had them wrapped in Saran Wrap."

The wrap not only had to be changed frequently, it also looked unprofessional.

So Marsden and his team created a proof-of-concept 15" USB keyboard, slightly smaller than a typical 18"-20" unit to save dentist's cubicle space, with a completely smooth glass top with lettering on the underside of the glass. Smoothness meant there were no nooks or crannies, for germs to hide so it was easy and quick to wipe down and disinfect.  They incorporated adjustable touch capacitive circuitry allowing it to be sensitive even when wearing gloves and clicked, so you'd know when you hit the key. No mouse was needed as it housed both a numeric keypad and an integrated oval touch pad, despite its small size. Because of all the technology and cleanable material, the unit was a little hefty, weighing in at just over 3 lbs.

For their pilot study to test its effectiveness against bacteria, they infected 12 keys on 3 keyboards - silicone, glass and standard plastic. After wiping with a disposable disinfecting towelette, they discovered no significant difference with the amount of remaining bacteria between a plastic and a silicone keyboard. However, the glass keyboard was "100 times less infected" than the other two.

Award Winner, Made in Canada

Cleankeys was an instant hit. In fact about 2 years ago, the prototype took home a "Best of Show" award the American Dental Association Trade Show, winning by a significant margin against other companies like Crest, Colgate and Proctor and Gamble. And even better, they're made right  here in Canada. Logican, a boutique Electronics Service manufacturing company in Edmonton's Research Park, is building them.

Cleankeys2nd Generation Cleankeys

But to appeal to a broader audience a second-generation keyboard was needed.  Marsden decided to create 2 models - both USB wireless, lighter and with better performance than the original.

Instead of a smooth glass surface glass, the second model is made from high-grade acrylic with molded keywells with a slight indentation.

"Some prefer glass, because it's inert and smoother and perceived quality, but (as an alternative), acrylic is ideal- it's harder and less susceptible to breaking."

But with the glass unit, there were some challenges.

"If it's flat, they can't feel the keys - it's not good for touch-typists."

Touch-typists needed a place to rest their fingers - difficult with a touch sensitive keyboard. So Marsden incorporated into the design an accelerometer, an electromechanical device that measures acceleration forces like the one found in Apple's iPhone and iPad.

"It's also like the vibration sensors in a Wii remote."

There are a number of industrial companies and institutions adopting the Cleankeys keyboard. But while the keyboard has an incredible potential to save lives, at $400, you will need to dig a little deeper into your pocket to buy one compared to a typical keyboard. But Marsden explains that it's currently designed for a niche market and more costly to produce. Nevertheless, Marsden says they could potentially see a strictly consumer model down the road.


Greg Gazin can be reached at  gadgetguy "at" telus "dot" net Or

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