RealTime IT News

How Open Source Saved My Neck

FEATURE: Though Microsoft might disagree, open source software in many cases can be a real cost saver. It can also save your neck. Literally.

Most information workers spend inhumane amounts of time huddled over their computers. We type away at our keyboards, stare at our screens and remain shackled to our chairs seemingly immobile for hours at a time.

The docility of inactivity combined with the repetitive action on keyboards and mice is a lethal cocktail that is undeniably harmful to the human form. Call it repetitive stress injury (RSI), tendonitis, carpal tunnel or just simple back or neck pain, the problem is real and it is deadly.

Whatever you want to call it, RSI-related injuries are avoidable and preventable. Having an ergonomic workstation is important.

Sitting at a proper position relative to your keyboard, mouse and monitor is a good first step. It's also a good idea to have good hardware, both keyboard and mouse that are ergonomically tuned to help reduce stress on your body.

In that regard, Microsoft has been a leader as one of the suppliers of ergonomic keyboards.

Hardware alone isn't enough, though, and even Microsoft's own keyboard manuals include a health warning that states, "use of a keyboard or mouse may be linked to serious injuries or disorders." The company provides tips on how to stay healthy while computing.

That said, wouldn't it be a whole lot easier if there were a program that automatically told you when to take a break, when to stretch, provide exercises and track how much time you actually spent on your keyboard and mouse?

Lucky for all of us, such software does exist. Even more fortunate is the fact that perhaps one of the best such applications is freely available and open source.

Workrave is a GPL  licensed application that runs on both Windows and Linux and can be easily installed and configured. The three main rest periods that it defines are micro-pauses, rest breaks and the daily limit, all of which are user customizable.

The micro-pause is intended to be a shorter break just to get your hands off the keyboard, while the rest break is a longer break that also involves a combination of different RSI-busting exercises.

There are 10 such exercises included in the program: finger stretch; neck tilt stretch; backward shoulder stretch; move the eyes; train focusing the eyes; look into the darkness; and move the shoulders.

The daily limit is also an interesting feature in that it specifies the total amount of time per day that you want to be spending on your computer. Just as with an everyday alarm clock, the micro-pause, rest period and daily limits can be 'snoozed' by either skipping or outright postponing the notices when they appear.

Unlike your everyday alarm clock though, Workrave can track how many breaks you've skipped so you can see just how "bad" you are.

head turn
Open source looking out for your neck health.

Workrave's statistics even go a step further beyond just reporting on the breaks that you took or didn't take. This nifty little open source application will also record precisely how much activity you actually performed, as well.

Have you ever wondered how many mouse clicks or keystrokes you made in one day? It's a staggering figure when you actually see the stats.

On one average to slow day recently, I recorded over 5,000 mouse clicks, traversed over 845 meters of distance (mouse movements) and had over 35,0000 keystrokes.

It's enough to make your head spin.

It's not entirely clear exactly how many users Workrave has. Workrave developer Raymond Penners told internetnews.com that the download counter currently mentions 132,544 downloads (from version 0.1.0 onwards to 1.8.3).

But he said that the number is difficult to map to the number of users, because users most likely download a new version each time one comes available.

Workrave as it currently stand is also considered by Penners to be mostly feature complete and stable.

"We do not intend to add each and every feature which is only slightly related towards Workrave's core focus," Penners said. "Hence, users should not expect major feature additions in the 1.x series."

That's not to say that Workrave development is going to stand still.

Penners has a few things in mind for the 2.x series, including refactoring Workrave internally, splitting functionality (e.g. networking, exercises) into a plug-ins.

Once that is in place, he can add other unrelated features, such as automatic mouse clicking. Other items on the Workrave 2.x wish list include more exercises that are perhaps more 3-D animated, more detailed statistics and centralized online storage of Workrave statistics.

Open source software has certainly saved the necks of many IT users who, for various reasons, cannot or will not run proprietary alternatives. When it comes to your health, it could well save your neck (arms, shoulders, eyes, back and wrists), too.

Workrave is freely available via workrave.org or the workrave page on SourceForge.net.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor for internetnews.com.