I See the Light

FRAMINGHAM (07/31/2000) - A few years ago, it seemed as though there was an epidemic of repetitive stress injuries (RSI) among computer users, primarily in the form of wrists pained by carpal tunnel syndrome. For a while, it seemed as if half the people I worked with were wearing wrist supports at least part of the time. While this is less an information technology issue than one of employee health and furniture design, it's clearly related to computer use, and IT managers have had to deal with and help troubleshoot RSI-related problems.

As a writer, my primary tools used to be paper, a pencil, a typewriter and a telephone. Now I sit in front of a computer screen for most of every day, and I've become acutely aware of another, more insidious form of RSI: eyestrain.

Through Glasses, Dimly

As my body has slumped into middle age, I've become more conscious than ever of how much I rely on my eyes and how they're just not as good as they used to be.

I'm quite nearsighted and have worn glasses with a heavy prescription since I was seven years old. Still, until about 10 years ago, my vision always corrected to better than 20/20. I also encountered the common age-related inability to focus as closely as I used to, and so about a dozen years ago, I started wearing bifocals for reading. That was fine for a while, until I realized that neither the distant-vision nor the reading segments of my glasses would let me see my computer screen in sharp focus. I tried progressive-focus lenses but couldn't adapt to them. I spent two years straining my eyes and moving to ever bigger monitors. Then I took a friend's advice and got a special pair of glasses just for computer work.

Computer glasses? Yes. The main part of the lens is optimized for sharp focus at roughly arm's length, and there's a standard bifocal reading lens at the bottom. The main lens takes in both the built-in screen of the laptop I use on the road and the desktop monitors in my home and in Computerworld's office.

Distant vision has been dispensed with.

And what a difference it makes. When I put on my computer glasses, my head relaxes and my eyes smile. It's as real and physically refreshing a feeling as putting a cold cloth on my forehead. No more eyestrain. The only drawback is that I have to remember to carry my second pair of glasses, so when I get into the car in the evening and realize that I can't see well enough to drive, I don't have to trek back into the office to find them.

Seriously - that pair of computer glasses is the best present I've ever given myself. It's made me more comfortable, more productive and better able to focus on my work.

Let There Be Light

Another important element in working efficiently at a computer screen is ambient lighting. The main Computerworld editorial office contains a farm of low-walled cubicles with a ceiling full of fluorescent lamps. There's nothing special about this, but on-screen reflections can be a problem.

At home, where I have more flexibility, I've discovered some very helpful lighting products that let me work with less strain. First is a small desk lamp from 3M Co. in Minneapolis, the model TL700EG, which puts a small fluorescent bulb under a clear polarized filter. The light is soft and almost completely glare-free, and it's very pleasant on my desk in the evening.

Even better than that lamp is a line of lighting products from Ott-Lite Inc. in Tampa, Fla. Ott-Lite's lamps and fluorescent bulbs are characterized by very natural color, radiation shielding and reduced glare. Ott-Lite got its start with biomedical lighting, when John Ott invented the full-spectrum fluorescent bulb for stimulating plant growth indoors. The company also began making treatment units for people suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

Ott-Lite's small TrueColor lamp (priced at less than US$80) is widely used by people who sew and by fabric artists; you can see them on the appraisal tables of Antiques Roadshow on PBS.

I'm currently using a floor model Ott-Lite lamp (about $135) with an attached magnifier that often comes in handy. At first, the lamp's light seems harsh, but after a few seconds, it becomes very soothing and natural, more accurate and relaxing than the light cast by incandescents and standard fluorescent bulbs.

I'm in the process of getting Ott-Lite bulbs for my workshop and home office fixtures. They're more expensive than bulbs at my local home center, but you know what? My eyes, my working comfort and my color discrimination ability are worth it.

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