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PDA popularity triggering eyestrain

Chris Kwak, a 31-year-old financial analyst, spends hours a day glued to the tiny screen of his Palm Treo hand-held computer. He fires off e-mails, checks stock prices and recently plowed through the novel "The Da Vinci Code."

But staring at the 2-inch screen is taking its toll on Kwak's eyes: He regularly pops Tylenol to dull the headaches he gets from focusing on the tiny font he has chosen for his device.

"It definitely hurts," said Kwak on a recent afternoon, as he stood outside his Wall Street office, reading messages in the glaring sun.

As use of portable hand-held gadgets soars, Americans are becoming a nation of squinters who spend hours hunched over gadgets such as PDAs, cell phones, game devices and iPods, straining to read small text everywhere from dimly lighted restaurants to sunny park benches. With mobile technology growing increasingly sophisticated -- allowing people to surf the Web, build PowerPoint presentations and watch "The Daily Show" on screens barely larger than a postage stamp -- many users say they are experiencing eyestrain.

For decades, optometrists have recognized that spending long hours in front of a desktop computer can lead to a range of eye-related problems, including headaches, burning sensations and temporarily blurred vision. Now, hand-helds are triggering a fresh round of complaints. Many of the factors known to cause eyestrain on larger computers -- such as low-contrast screens and fonts smaller than 11 points -- are especially common on mobile devices. Moreover, to conserve battery life, hand-helds usually have dimmer displays than do desktop computers.

Some opticians say the tiny fonts on the gadgets are leading a wave of younger people to seek reading glasses. Most people start noticing age-related vision declines around age 40, as the eye's internal lens loses elasticity. While no one is suggesting that the small screens are causing people's vision to deteriorate faster, some opticians say the small type on portable gadgets is making people aware of minor vision shortcomings at younger ages.

"I have 30-year-olds coming in for reading glasses so they can focus on their BlackBerry," says Alli Rossi, an optician in Los Angeles.

Helena Bell, a 24-year-old graduate student in Carbondale, Ill., says that even scrolling through an iPod song menu makes her eyes feel sore.

"They keep trying to cram all this technology from a desktop computer into these teensy, itsy-bitsy devices," says Bell, who abandoned her Palm hand-held after just a few months of use because the small font was straining her eyes.

To address vision concerns, technology companies are studying the science of "readability" -- and looking for ways to make hand-held computing easier on the eyes. Microsoft Corp. has adapted a line of fonts specifically for hand-held screens, such as "Frutiger Linotype," which features simple, open letters with lots of white space so the typeface does not look cramped. This font has been used in some PocketPC software. Microsoft has also developed a technology called ClearType, which helps smooth the jagged edges of letters on the screen and increases the sharpness of text displays. Motorola Inc.'s newest line of hand-held devices, available later this year, will give users the option to enlarge the type size.

"Our eyes were not designed for the visual demands of 21st-century America," says Andrea P. Thau, an associate clinical professor at SUNY State College of Optometry and spokeswoman for the American Optometric Association. The constant need to focus up-close is putting unprecedented strain on the eyes.

But many consumers say eyestrain is a fair trade-off for the convenience of mobile computing.

"Who wants to carry a book around?" asks Kwak, who recently downloaded the epic poem "Beowulf" to read on his Treo.
Thanks to HomeTon.


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