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An ounce of prevention

Clifford Gross holds a 35-millimeter camera in his hand, flexing his wrist slowly. He feels the weight of the camera and its pull on the muscles in his forearm and through his wrist.

The camera and lens are not heavy, maybe only a couple of pounds. Imagine, as Gross is saying now, carrying it for hours every day as part of your job, year after year. The subtle pull on the muscles, repeated thousands of times, eventually might cause debilitating problems.

Gross looks at the camera, at his forearm, his wrist. He flexes and thinks, and for a moment no one else seems to be in the lab of the Center for Product Ergonomics at the University of South Florida.

We are watching Gross take the first steps on the road to innovation.

"Products are a means to an end," says Gross, who directs the center. "How a chair looks is important, but how it functions is more important."

Gross' mission in life and at the USF lab is to make things better. He uses more specific language, talking about the development of a transparent interface between a product and its users.

In the end, he simply wants to make better stuff, things that are easy and fun to use, that are safe, that improve our lives at work and home. He wants to do it all in a way that is not obvious to users, "the transparent interface."

"The ultimate goal of innovation," Gross writes in his 1996 book, The Right Fit, "is to understand what is and to transform it into what ought to be."

In a small lab filled with computers, video screens and wires, Gross and his assistant, John Lloyd, are pursuing that goal.

Among their first projects since the center opened in late 1995 is a study on how and why people fall.

The idea is to find out whether certain things happen to our bodies in the short time before we fall and then to design a device that would alert us.

"I want to prevent falls in the elderly and to tell them they are not walking properly," Gross says.

First, he and Lloyd need to see how people walk normally and how they walk when carrying something.

After some early test runs, they settled on testing older people walking back and forth across the lab holding nothing and then holding a cafeteria tray with 8 pounds of weight on it.

The study uses software that Gross developed. Electromagnetic sensors are connected to key areas on the person _ the feet, the center of mass above the hips and the back of the head.

The sensors instantly send information to the lab's computer and create a three-dimensional model of the person's movements.

This way, Gross and Lloyd can see how a person's gait and other movements change when they are carrying something, in this case a cafeteria tray.

The researchers can view the information as the person is being tested. The computer screen can show anything from a stick figure to a full skeleton and measures the body's parts in relation to each other.

Early data show that, when a person carries something, the heels get wider apart, and the center of mass gets lower.

"The body wants to lower the center of mass when it has a weight to hold," Gross says. He makes his hands like a tepee and says to imagine something is placed on its top point. As Gross says that, he moves his hands wider apart, keeping his fingers touching.

"When we become unstable, the body lowers the center of mass," he says.

The thing is we do this naturally, without thinking. It is programed into us, but the problem is sometimes we don't compensate quickly enough for a change, whether it is carrying a tray or moving onto a more slippery floor or stumbling on a cracked sidewalk.

When we don't, we fall.

Gross envisions a small device that would be programed to make an audible sound when we reach the kind of position that his research will show leads to a fall.

"The tone will warn you," says Gross, who hopes to have the device marketed within a couple of years. "Maybe you will slow down or catch your breath. Many elderly people who fall probably have many episodes of near falls."

Falls are a significant problem. In 1995, 760 people died in falls in Florida, including 604 people over age 65.

Nationally, more than 87 percent of all hip fractures result from falls, and a woman age 65 has a 1 in 5 chance of breaking a hip in her remaining lifetime.

The fall prevention study is Gross' latest endeavor but not nearly his first. He is one of the country's best-known ergonomics specialists.

For example, he developed the back brace that is ubiquitous these days on those who lift things, and he helped Black & Decker develop the much-praised DeWalt cordless drills.

Other products include office chairs, car seats and a flexible pen that was found to be more comfortable and allow users to write more quickly.

Gross' philosophy is that businesses need to include ergonomics into everything from the design of the workplace to the design of the products.

He is quick to note that musculoskeletal injuries account for 62 percent of workplace injuries in America, running up a health care and lost work time tab of $30-billion a year.

Many are the widely publicized problems associated with computer use and manufacturing. Repetitive motions, such as typing on a keyboard or sawing apart chickens in a processing plant, place stress (cumulative trauma, in the medical parlance) on joints and soft tissue.

By revising products and understanding how much stress is too much, such problems can be reduced.

Many office workers now see examples of the work of Gross and other ergonomics specialists in the wrist pads, better chairs, movable work stations and other innovations designed to cut stress on wrists, shoulders and other body parts.

The other area Gross sees as fertile for ergonomic innovation is the products themselves: easy-to-use tools, more comfortable cars, perhaps smart devices that will adapt their size to individuals the same way a car's anti-lock brakes calculate the pressure on the brake pedal and the road conditions to help prevent accidents.

"The near future will bring a whole group of intelligent products that will be able to learn how the person uses them and adapt," Gross says.

Again, he brings up the words "transparent interface." Products will be developed that are easy to use and put less stress on our bodies. If all works correctly, we won't notice the difference.

"They will seem to be natural extensions of our bodies," Gross says.

That is why, as he holds the 35-millimeter camera, he seems to be thinking of how it can be an extension of his hand, wrist and forearm.

He is silent for a few seconds, flexing, thinking. Suddenly a smile, the outward sign of innovation.

"What if you had a support, attached to the camera and to your forearm, to take some of the pressure off your wrist. . . It just might work."

He says it, and you'd better believe it.