With a flick of the wrist Featured

10:06am EDT July 22, 2002

Don Hillier wasn't convinced that the product which one of his partners had conceived would work when he saw the prototype.

"I said, 'What's this?'" Hillier recalls as his response to inventor James Getsay's first effort.

Hillier quickly changed his thinking when he tried out the first of the Wrist Wave products designed by Getsay, who had owned QSI Technologies Inc., an Allison Park medical products manufacturer. And, Hillier's initial skepticism hasn't retarded the product's progress from concept to commercialization.

Getsay, who was familiar with a number of products that have been developed to protect computer users' wrists, thought there might be a way to improve on them.

The problem they are trying to address is the strain on hands caused by extensive use of keyboards, which is often cited as a cause of a repetitive-motion disorder known as carpal tunnel syndrome. Researchers have determined that some preventive measures can be taken, among them the repositioning of the hands on the keyboard to reduce fatigue.

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve, which runs through the wrist, is compressed by the swelling of the surrounding tendons. The pressure on the nerve creates a tingling feeling in the hand, pain and the loss of some sensation in the fingers.

One of the most common causes is engaging in activities that, like typing, require repetitive motion, and the resulting condition can be debilitating.

"Though carpal tunnel syndrome will occasionally go away on its own, the pain and numbness may become worse over time," says Dr. Michael Seel, an orthopedic surgeon with Tri Rivers Surgical Associates. "Without treatment, carpal tunnel syndrome can cause permanent damage to the median nerve."

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, repetitive-strain injuries are the most common and costly occupational health problem, affecting hundreds of thousands of American workers and costing more than $20 billion a year in workers' compensation claims. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that roughly 850,000 new cases of carpal tunnel occur each year and about 260,000 surgeries are performed annually to correct the condition.

The first product rigged up by Getsay was a hand-support bar to elevate a keyboard user's hands as a way to avoid fatigue. Three rows of five plastic rollers, each a little thicker than a pencil, allow users to move their hands back and forth and from side to side on the keyboard, either to type or to operate the numerical keypad at the right side of most computer keyboards.

With materials left over after developing the first prototypes, Getsay came up with a gadget to be used with a computer mouse. The mouse version swivels in an arc pattern to allow for a wider range of movement than the keyboard version. By varying the basic design of the keyboard model, Getsay came up with two complementary products that can be sold individually or as a set.

Hillier and Getsay, along with the principals of Wolverine Plastics Co., an Evans City company, had already formed Isosceles Development Co. to bring to market a hobbyist model bullet train developed by Getsay that simulates that vehicle's speed at reduced scale. Although the model train has yet to reach the market, the partners decided that the Wrist Wave products were worth commercializing, says Hillier.

The Wrist Wave products went from concept to commercial availability in about 18 months, with manufacturing of the first models beginning last March. Hillier, a CPA who pulled the parties together to form Isosceles and manages the day-to-day operations, says the speed of commercialization was due largely to easy access to test-customers. The orthopedic surgeon, of course, allowed some of his patients to use them, and the partners also found some local high-tech companies willing to test about two dozen sets and offer anecdotal feedback. The partners have invested nearly $100,000 to date in the project.

Since the prototype's creation, the partners have made only a few refinements in the devices, so the current Wrist Wave products are essentially the same as the first ones that went into production earlier this year. A set of softer pads has been installed under the keyboard unit to allow some give, and a pair of rubber O-rings have been incorporated into the mouse unit to eliminate a slight knock that occurred at the end of the unit's side-to-side travel.

The latest models also sport a new logo, replacing one that Hillier says reminded him of one that might be found on a soap product.

Isosceles Development was scheduled to launch a test of a television campaign last month to gauge the direct-marketing approach to selling the Wrist Wave products, then move to a 12-month campaign to demonstrate the appeal of the product.

Sales, Hillier hopes, will be in the range of 300,000 units over the course of the campaign. Hillier says Isosceles Development will leverage the strength of those sales to crack the larger consumer market through retail outlets.

Sales have been modest since the first Wrist Wave supports were made available, but Hillier points out that they haven't yet launched an aggressive marketing campaign. He says about 1,000 sets have been sold, mostly through independent distributors and sales direct to consumers over its Internet site, www.wristwave.com. Prices are $32.95 and $29.95 plus shipping for the wrist support and mouse support, respectively, but Hillier expects that the prices will settle in at around $25 each when the direct-marketing campaign begins.

Hillier says the company has enough profit built into the products to absorb the price pressure that the retailers will no-doubt exert on the company, and production capacity is sufficient to produce 50,000 sets a month, more if demand requires it.

And if OSHA's statistics are accurate, the demand will be there.