How clean are your keys? Think infection

Randy Marsden

“The assistive technology provided is amazing in its ability to erase the boundaries of disability.”
That was what (the late) Christopher Reeve said about the OnScreen keyboard in Microsoft Windows. He and Muhammad Ali are among millions who have benefited from products developed by Randy Marsden of Edmonton.
For more than two decades, Marsden has concentrated on creating specialized computer technologies for people with physical disabilities: quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, ALS and muscular dystrophy. His career took direction with a third-year electrical engineering university project when he and another student developed a communications device for his friend, Si Peterson, a quadriplegic since a gymnastics accident in high school. Upon graduation, with funding from the National Research Council’s IRAP program and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, they started Madentec Limited.
Over the years, numerous communications products (Tracker and Discover lines) emerged that have made an enormous difference to disabled people around the world—allowing them to operate computers with blinks, tooth picks, puffs or touching of lips. Spin-off technology includes various applications for cell phones and computers. In fact, Marsden is the co-founder of Swype, the cutting edge text input software used in Samsung smart phones.
But, when a dentist from France purchased his TrackerPro, it led to major changes in focus. TrackerPro is a wireless device—a small dot of reflective tape worn on the forehead, hat brim or glasses—that replaces a mouse for users with limited or no hand movement. Curious about why someone who obviously is able to use his hands would need a product designed for head movement, Marsden called the dentist.
It turned out it was actually the time-savings that motivated the dentist, who explained that he needed to view digital x-rays on computers, right in treatment rooms. Marden learned that, “Treatment rooms have strong infection control requirements and if devices were not sterilized, the dentist would have to take his gloves off to use a mouse, and de-glove and re-glove each time.”
Forming a focus group of four veteran dentists to get their perspectives, he discovered that anything within two metres/six feet of a patient’s mouth needed to be wiped down between patients. “That includes almost the entire room.”
But while TrackerPro might be a solution to the mouse problem, the ultimate challenge was really the keyboard.
“You can’t (properly) wipe down a keyboard. And, those that did use a keyboard, had them wrapped in Saran Wrap.” It had to be changed frequently, and looked unprofessional.
“Keyboards are the number one cause of bacterial infections and are more germ-infested than public toilet seats.”
Marsden points to studies that indicate hospital keyboards are known to spread infection more than any other surface—and more than 100,00 people died last year from hospital acquired infections (in North America). Patients entered with a broken leg but caught pneumonia and died because they caught a bug.
So Marsden marshaled his team. “We’re ‘input guys’… We can do this.”
They created a proof-of-concept USB keyboard: slightly smaller than a typical keyboard (15” versus 18-20”) to save cubicle space, with a completely smooth glass top with the lettering on the underside of the glass. With no nooks or crannies, it was quick and easy to wipe down and disinfect. Adjustable touch capacitive circuitry allowed it to be sensitive to the touch even when wearing gloves, and it made a clicking sound when a key was hit. Despite its smaller footprint, it housed both a numeric keypad and an integrated oval touch pad, so no was mouse needed. The bottom was constructed from machined Corian (counter-top material). It weighed a hefty 3.2 lbs./1.48kg.
In the pilot study, 12 keys on three keyboards—silicone, glass and standard plastic—were infected. After wiping with a Cavi-Wipe (disposable disinfecting towelette), they discovered no significant difference with the amount of remaining bacteria between the plastic and silicone keyboards. However, the glass keyboard was “100 times less infected” than the other two.
“We wanted market feedback… Although we had no (actual) product to sell, we booked a booth at the American Dental Association Trade Show in Las Vegas—at the last minute in January 2008.”
Unbeknownst to Marsden, his “Cleankeys” keyboard joined 27 other innovations in the new product showcase, which featured major players like Proctor & Gamble, Oral-B and Colgate. “We shared our showcase with Crest. We won Best of Show for best new product. Even better, we won by a wide margin.”
Marsden would win other awards: The 2008 ASTech Award for Societal Impact (his second win); the 2009 University of Alberta Alumni Honour Award, and the Innovation Awards from the Canadian Manufacturing and Exporters Association in 2009 and the National Research Council in January.
Cleankeys was a hit, but it was not meant to be a mass produced device. Nevertheless, orders rolled in—selling 4,500 units in 18 months. That number may not sound significant when you consider how many dentists there are around the world. Or, not a lot compared to the over one billion on-screen keyboards shipped with every copy of Windows since 1998 that bears Madentec’s copyright credits. But, it was significant enough to see the demand.
Marsden realized that the need for a cleanable keyboard went way beyond the dentist’s office. “Most keyboards aren’t used by just one person. Think clinics, schools and airport check-ins and food services—any place people share computers.” For example, automated plants like Lucerne Ice Cream were using his product.
“You can share this keyboard without sharing your germs.” It also hits closer to the Marsden home. “We have a family computer in the house and have five kids—the keyboard is disgusting.”
The need became even more apparent with infection control and H1N1 very much in the public eye, and hand sanitizers being found almost everywhere.
So, with a broader demand, updating more suitable for a wider audience became necessary. It also prompted the change of the company name to Cleankeys Inc., with Marsden as the CEO, to reflect the primary focus on keyboard design and production.
The forthcoming second-generation glass keyboard will be a wireless USB model that’s lighter and improves performance. In addition, another wireless model, made from high-grade acrylic with molded keywells with slight indentations, will be introduced.
“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. If it’s flat, they can’t feel the keys—it’s not good for touch-typists.” They need a place to rest their fingers, a challenge with his touch sensitive keyboard. So Marsden’s acrylic model incorporates an accelerometer, an electromechanical device that measures acceleration forces like the one found in Apple’s iPhone. “It’s also like the vibration sensors in a Wii remote.”
The keyboard sells for $400—high compared to typical models—but Marsden says it’s more costly to produce, and it’s niche-market justifiable. (Although we may see a consumer model down the road)
“Look at the time it saves dentists—no wrap, no gloves on and off pays off in a month or two. In hospitals, if it cuts down days not have to be spent in hospitals—that costs $5 billion a year in the U.S., not to mention the suffering and fatalities caused.” Liability is also being transferred to hospitals. “As of October 2008, U.S. insurance companies stopped reimbursing hospitals for treatment for their insured patients, if the infection was acquired in the hospital.”
While Cleankeys is primarily sold in Europe, it will be launched worldwide this month. “It’s a world market we’re taking this product to from Edmonton and we’re making it here in Edmonton.”
Logican, a boutique electronics service manufacturing company specializing in medical, military and industrial products in Edmonton Research Park, is building them. President Harvey Sheydwasser travels the world and sees the extent of the problem He believes Marsden’s technology will be widely adopted. “We’ve worked with Randy before and are happy to be part of the solution.”
Marsden, 46, hopes to help fight infection and save lives… one keyboard at a time. √

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2 Comments on “How clean are your keys? Think infection”


  1. […] See on edmontoniansvisionaries.wordpress.com […]

  2. Niesha Siu Says:

    Thought-provoking piece , I was enlightened by the points ! Does anyone know if my company could possibly grab a sample MN RE-9 document to fill in ?


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