New horizons for office furniture

18.49, Monday 30 Nov 2020

I spend so much time on Zoom these days, I would prefer to be bobbing around in a salt-water bath with a virtual reality headset strapped to my face. Like the precogs in Minority Report.

Yet I’m at a desk sitting on a chair. How else could it work? WELL.

v buckenham in a tweet: I continue to joke about, but increasingly just want, this giant motorised scorpion chair

Check out that scorpion gamer chair. You straddle and recline on the scorpion; its tail hangs over your head and suspends two widescreen monitors. Your arms rest atop menacing scorpion pincers at the end of which are your keyboard and your mouse.

The entire thing is articulated. It moves. Seriously, go to the article and be amazed at the gifs.

So… honestly, why isn’t office furniture as brave as this?

Way back in 1968, The Mother of All Demos in which Doug Engelbart demonstrated, for the first time, hypertext, video conferencing, word processing, remote collaboration – and the computer mouse. AND ALSO! Office furniture.

Engelbart’s team, for the first time, separated the screen from the keyboard. Before that, the VDU (visual display unit) and the input device were a single object.

Here’s a gallery of workstation photos from the Demo. In particular, here’s the ergonomic workstation in action: it’s an Eames chair with a custom console mounted over the user’s lap. The console (a closer look) has a keyboard, mouse, and chording keyboard placed just where you need them. There’s no desk: the screen is on a separate stand some distance away. The console chair was specially commissioned and designed by modernist office furniture designers Herman Miller (here’s their write-up).

The point is that new technology and new contexts can and should drive new furniture.

Case in point: this is a fascinating review of how to work in virtual reality. Some highlights:

  • I have a roommate now and find visual stimuli distracting. … VR setups can isolate away everything that’s not the monitors.
  • VR headsets can be a bit heavy, but besides that can be highly ergonomic. In virtual environments you can configure screens to be anywhere you want them.

There’s a good photo/screengrab of the virtual from inside one of these VR setups: it’s a virtual room, with a regular computer screen hanging in the middle of it.

(Aside: I think this is one of the early compelling use cases for VR or augmented reality smart glasses. Think of the glasses as a competitor for monitors. On a plane, assuming we’re ever travelling again? Strap on your glasses and immerse in your own private movie theatre. Or work, anywhere, with a multiscreen setup just like you have at home… but without having to carry it.)

If you’re working in VR, do you really need a desk? Or an office chair?

Here’s another concept: velcro.

I ran across this excellent interview with internet OG Justin Hall. Who, it turns out, has been experimenting with aprons.

I want to have an ergonomic computer setup wherever I work – standing, sitting in a task chair, someone’s dining table, on a couch. As I was switching between sitting and standing in different work settings, I attached velcro to my pants to hold my keyboard and trackpad from sliding on the floor. Recently I was able to produce a velcro apron with $30 materials sourced on Amazon at retail prices. It holds my input accessories in place whether I am sitting or standing! I’m currently describing this with my hands at my sides, typing into a split keyboard attached to my apron.

Which I love.

What if the cyberpunk of the future isn’t the black leather jacket and dark techno future of Mondo 2000’s dream in 1996 – but instead, outdoorsy, heavy cotton, Portland-barista-style apron, and homespun haberdashery?

All of which reminds me of sui generis science pioneer Stephen Wolfram’s productivity setup, revealed in 2019, which includes a laptop body harness for working while on woodland walks! Go to that article and check out the pictures. There must be something in the air.

I’m more than slightly tempted with getting myself a first class airplane passenger seat, which it turns out you can buy, because at least those are designed to be sat in for 12 hour at a time.

I was speculating the other month about new rooms we all need now but maybe the starting point is furniture for the home office.

Where are the new form factors?

What about the Ikea office pod, or the wireless-charging beanbag with capacitative touch fabric keyboard, or the Bloomberg terminal scorpion chair, or the Apple augmented reality smart specs 5K screens, or the Patagonia velcro-enabled walking desk apron, or the ergonomic home office Gmail trapeze, or the Excel cocoon?


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