Supine Computing

mgsloan


A few months ago, I pulled a muscle in my lower back, by rock climbing after doing lots of back-bends and handstand practice. I quickly went from feeling fairly nimble to hobbling around with limited mobility and an inability to sit at a desk. Argh!

Happily, I was prepared with some very comfortable and ergonomic1 ways to use the computer while laying down (supine). After about a week of doing this and phasing in some exercise, I could finally stand up straight again!

This post describes variations on supine computing – what's worked best for me so far.

Hammock Computing!

The best variety of supine computing is in a hammock! Here is a photo from summer of 2018:

Using a computer ergonomically in a hammock, via external split keyboard and computer suspended above head

This is highly ergonomic – most joints are in quite neutral positions. In particular, your neck can be fully relaxed because the screen is above your head.

In the photo above, the laptop is suspended via releasable zip ties$ threaded through a nice strap that came with some gymnastic rings. Ratchet straps are even better for this purpose, as they have a builtin way to tension them. In the photo below, a ratchet strap is tensioned from one end of the hammock stand to the other:

strap tensioned across hammock stand

In this case, zip ties are attaching to little wire loops wrapped around the laptop's hinges. Loops like this, or carabiners, are not necessary but they are a bit more convenient. With most ThinkPad laptops, and likely many other brands, its possible to thread the zip ties through between the body and screen or at the hinges. Here's a more recent picture showing this:

zip tie threaded through x1 carbon

I find that ThinkPads are more than sturdy enough to be suspended by their hinges. Sometimes I'll have the full weight on one hinge, while attaching the other. Please use your best judgment about what your laptop can handle2.

Not just for hammocks

This is probably obvious, but supine computing is not just for hammocks! It's great for computing anywhere you can lay down. Since I also want to encourage computing outdoors and hammocking, all of the photos below will involve a "flying saucer" hammock$.

Laziest approach: pillows (but poor ergonomics)

This approach can be quite convenient for short sessions:

using pillow head support in circular hammock

Using a Kinesis Advantage 2$ keyboard works quite well in this posture, since there is a good amount of space between your hands. This might not be viable with other types of keyboards, but certainly worth a try.

The neck ergonomics are not ideal, though – doing extended sessions like this can cause neck soreness. So, please try to avoid that!

Much better: screen above head + split keyboard

Ideally, the screen would be above your head. Here, it's suspended via the same zip tie approach as above:

screen above head + split keyboard supine computing

Another improvement in this picture is using a split keyboard. In this case it's a keyboard.io, but other split keyboards like the ErgoDox can work great too. By placing the keyboard halves to either side, your arms can be in a more relaxed position.

This is much better than the prior supine posture. It doesn't seem to put much strain anywhere, and so is quite viable for extended computing sessions. It's also quite simple – split keyboard to either side, and screen above your head.

Other suspension methods

There are a huge variety of other ways to suspend a horizontal display above you. Pretty much any well anchored rope or strap will support the zip-ties-around-hinges approach. Here are a few more suspension ideas:

Other supine approaches

Getting weird: upside down belay glasses

Alternatively, belay glasses can be used to allow your neck to be in a neutral position:

supine computing with belay glasses

Specifically, these are clip on belay glasses$, which can be used while belaying someone rock climbing, to allow you to watch the climber without craning your neck. In this case, they are flipped upside down such that your vision is downwards. This actually works fairly well, but certainly looks quite strange.

I haven't found myself doing this much, likely due to the following reasons:

Downsides of supine computing

Upsides of supine computing

Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading this post, I hope some of you are inspired to try out supine computing, perhaps even outside! If you're dealing with back pain – argh – that sucks :( ! But I hope this approach helps you manage some of that, or at least work around it.

If you do experiment with this stuff, I'd be curious to see what you come up with! My email address is this site's hostname at gmail.com

Also, I'm working on more posts exploring other approaches, which I hope to publish in the next few weeks. See also my prior posts on reclined computing and airplane computing. If you're interested in this stuff, please check back in a while, or perhaps subscribe to my atom feed.


Footnotes

  1. I am a hobbyist in ergonomics, I have no credentials related to ergonomics, nor have I studied much of the academic literature on the topic. Mostly, I've just followed my own intuition, sought what feels good, and avoided what causes pain. So please take my advice with a grain of salt, and perhaps experiment to see what works for you!↩︎

  2. A couple years ago, I got in the habit of leaving zip ties threaded through the hinges of my laptop for convenience. This worked quite well, and I still sometimes do it. There is a potential danger to this, though – one evening I hastily closed my laptop onto a twisted zip tie, and that broke the screen. Argh! Thankfully, ThinkPads are relatively easy to repair, so I just put in a another screen.↩︎

  3. I don't think there is one ideal ergonomic posture. It seems sensible to switch between a variety of decently ergonomic postures. This way, the particular stresses and strains of each posture are less likely to accumulate into disorder.↩︎

More words

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