Study looks at potential effects of multi-touch devices

June 9, 2010

The evolution of computer systems has freed us from keyboards and now is focusing on multi-touch systems, those finger-flicking, intuitive and easy-to-learn computer manipulations that speed the use of any electronic device from cell phones to iPads. But little is known about the long-term stresses on our bodies through the use of these systems.

Now, a team of researchers led by Kanav Kahol of ASU is engaged in a project to determine the effects of long-term musculoskeletal stresses multi-touch devices place on us. The team, which includes computer interaction researchers, kinesiologists and ergonomic experts from ASU and Harvard University, also are developing a tool kit that could be used by designers when they refine new multi-touch systems. Download Full Image

“When we use our iPhone or iPad, we don’t naturally think that it might lead to a musculoskeletal disorder,” said Kahol, an assistant professor in ASU’s Department of Biomedical Informatics. “But the fact is it could, and we don’t even know it. We are all part of a large experiment. Multi-touch systems might be great for usability of a device, but we just don’t know what it does to our musculoskeletal system.”

As we move towards 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), Kahol said.

Many of today’s multi-touch systems have no consideration of eliminating gestures that are known to lead to MSDs, or eliminating gestures that are symptomatic of a patient population, Kahol said. This project – supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation – aims to develop best practices and standards for interactions that are safe and cause minimal user stress while allowing users to fully benefit from the new levels of immersion that multi-touch interaction facilitates.

In addition to Kahol, co-principal investigators on the project are Jack Dennerlein of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, and Devin Jindrich, an ASU kinesiologist.

Kahol said the project initially will focus on evaluating the impact multi-touch 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 that are produced while they interact with multi-touch systems. The researchers will then evaluate the impact of those stresses.

The second part of the project will develop biomechanical models where the user will be able to “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,” Kahol explained. “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, Kahol said, will be built with off the shelf components and it will give designers a new tool to use when developing new multi-touch 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,” Kahol said. “So our major challenge is going to be developing the software, the tool kit and the underlying models that will drive the tool kits.”

Kahol said that the last time designers developed a fundamental interaction system with computers they modified the standard keyboard. While it was useful, it 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. “As a result, it created a multimillion dollar industry in treating carpal tunnel syndrome. That is what we want to prevent with multi-touch systems.

“We are going for the preventative, rather than the curative,” he added.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Students compete in the classroom, on the field

June 9, 2010

When the elevator doors open on the second floor of the Carson Student-Athlete Center of Arizona State University, a large mural greets visitors with the words: “Sun Devils GRADUATE!” It’s a goal given equal weight and effort to winning a national championship.

So it was with no surprise that student-athletes, coaches and staff at ASU reacted to this week’s news that they are ranked second in the Pac-10 Academic Progress Ratings, bested only by Stanford. It’s a point of pride they rank right up there with their 12th place in the Learfield Sports Director’s Cup, given annually to the top all-around athletic department in the nation. Download Full Image

“When you’re talking about Arizona State, you’re talking about one of the top performing athletic programs in the country and that includes academic performance,” said Lisa Love, vice president for University Athletics. “We stand on a three-legged stool – academic achievement, championship achievement and doing it all with honor.

For more than a decade, ASU has seen a trajectory upward in terms of academic performance. It is the result of the dedication and hard work of the Office of Student-Athlete Development, led by Jean Boyd, associate athletic director, as well as the student-athletes, themselves, coaches, tutors, mentors and faculty.

ASU has had a well-developed academic support unit for student-athletes during the past 20 years, according to Boyd, as athletic departments across the country have increasingly focused energy and resources toward the academic success of their student-athletes. 

In 1997 an academic task force was convened at the university to focus on improving retention and graduation rates of student-athletes. Some important strategies were put into place such as mandatory academic advising for all student-athletes each semester, enhancements to tutoring support, and the implementation of academic mentors to work with at-risk students.

In 2003 Boyd became director of student-athlete development and implemented programs across the entire department that had been highly effective in working with football student-athletes. An assessment tool was created for all incoming and continuing student-athletes to put them in categories of low, medium and high risk.

“For the high risk students we created an individualized education plan to provide the structure and resources required to achieve academic success,” Boyd said. “For sports such as men’s Basketball, baseball, football, and wrestling, the office of student-athlete development partnered with faculty and other university support offices along with coaches to create academic improvement plans to create effective support systems. These improvement plans have been fully executed and in part are producing many of the outcomes we are seeing today.”

Men’s basketball, under head coach Herb Sendek, has seen its APR scores soar 129 points, from 843 to 972, while baseball improved from 853 to 966, and wrestling shot up from 883 to 946.

“Much of the credit goes to our student-athletes themselves,” Sendek said. “At the end of the day they’re the one’s who open their books and actually do the work. We are also really blessed here at Arizona State with a phenomenal academic support system and our sport, in particular, has had some tremendous academic coaches. We do an excellent job of meeting students’ needs – it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. Jean and his staff do a tremendous job of evaluating, of really staying on top of what a particular student needs.”

Allante Battle, a student-athlete in track and field, takes advantage of the services offered through the Office of Student-Athlete Development. A strong academic support system was important to both him and his parents – both former ASU student-athletes – when he was looking to attend college.

“I have some learning disabilities and the academic coaches help me with testing and staying on track,” said Battle, who was recently studying for finals in the student-athlete lounge. “I have two tutors and a mentor I meet with everyday and we go over what I need to work on and accomplish.”

Battle is studying sociology and education and said he may follow in the footsteps of his mother, Anna, who is principal at Desert Vista High School.

Boyd said the APR ratings, and particularly the improvements ASU teams have made under his leadership are “gratifying and humbling,” and the credit belongs to the entire ASU community that supports its students, as well as his staff.

“I’d line my team up against anyone in the country,” Boyd said. “They clock in every day to make a difference in young people’s lives.”

Sharon Keeler