The Office of Tomorrow (Today!)

The technologies of tomorrow promise to revolutionize how we collaborate, power our devices and navigate our world, but innovative designers are already changing these tasks with the technology of today

02.01.2012 by Adam Moore

What will our offices and classrooms look like in 10 years? What about in 20 years? It may seem counterproductive to muse on big-picture topics like that for long, but in the design industry, questions like these are our bread and butter. Designers are creating the future every day, so it makes sense to ask them just where they’re going.

So what does the future hold? After numerous interview with designers and tech experts, it seems that the workplaces and schools of tomorrow will be technological marvels, and not that much different from where we work now. It makes sense in a way—technology continues to burrow deeper and deeper into the fabric of our lives, but our basic needs as workers and students haven’t changed much. We’ll still need meeting spaces and furniture and computers, of some sort at least. We’ll still need café areas to make lunch and socialize—the only difference is that we will suddenly be able to socialize with co-workers in different locations and time zones in immersive, high-definition video environments. We’ll still have to attend those dreaded afternoon meetings, but the time formerly reserved for the leader trying to figure out a laptop connection will become productive brainstorming time.

This month, we’ve decided to look forward and give you a taste of what’s to come in the places where we work and live, as well as look at some useful tech-related products that are already hard at work, transforming the office of today into the office of tomorrow.

collaboration spaces
Perhaps no other place in the modern office inspires as many flights of fancy as the conference room—arguably because of the frustrating experiences people have trying to use the technology currently embedded within it.

“We joke around here about when a visitor comes in for a presentation and you’re trying to get the right adapter and plug them in, it gets kind of embarrassing sometimes—but I don’t think it’s unusual,” says John Hellwig, vice president of design strategy and research with Teknion.

For many designers, the thought of creating conferencing spaces that completely remove human error from the equation is tantalizing. Imagine working in a smart space where a chip in your work badge or an appointment on your calendar automatically sets up your desired conferencing space at the correct time, calibrating the video settings and connecting remote participants. Unfortunately, the technology to enable an all-encompassing network of this sort is still in its infancy; until it matures, the goal is to create technologies and spaces that provide users with a natural, instinctual conferencing experience.

“It used to be that only certain people went into the boardroom, and there was a person responsible for getting the Polycom system up and running for video conferencing,” says Bob Surman, product development manager with Nucraft. “Moving forward, everybody is going to be expected to walk into that room and turn on the technology.”

Part of that simplification will be accomplished by advances in wireless technology, eliminating the cords that tie us to existing systems, and part of that will be driven by the increasing presence of consumer electronics in the workplace, which will allow employees to use devices they are familiar with. But perhaps the biggest part of creating intuitive conferencing spaces will come from the ability to create immersive, naturalistic environments with large-scale video.

“Video is going to continue to be more attainable,” says Scott Sadler, product manager of media:scape with Steelcase. “With the progression in technology, it’s quite easy to imagine me being able to walk into a space that looks and feels as if I’m in the exact same room as you, even though I might be several thousand miles away.”

The increasing power of wireless technology will also allow for more mobile conferencing solutions. According to Larry Leete, new business development manager with Nucraft, new wireless internet standards, including WiGig—which will theoretically be able to move data at speeds of up to 7 gigabits per second, or more than 10 times the speed of traditional wireless networks—will enable secure, high-definition video conferencing to be set up quickly and easily within any space.

“The WiGig standard runs at 60 gigahertz, which is really cool for us, because at 60 gigahertz, the signal attenuates after 40 feet,” Leete notes. “The standard also doesn’t penetrate glass or walls, so it is entirely secure within a conferencing space.”

But while mobile telepresence-style environments remain a faint dream for the average business, existing video conferencing systems continue to add features and drop in price, making effective digital collaboration a reality now.

Steelcase recently introduced both media:scape mini and mobile platforms to the company’s flagship line, bringing the digital collaboration and conferencing tool to smaller groups and spaces. Mini can be set on top of any surface and requires no programming, while mobile is mounted on a cart for easy movement. Users connect to pucks designed to accommodate whatever digital device they are using and get to work.

Dialogue from Nucraft similarly enables collaboration and high-definition video and audio conferencing while combining the system with other pieces of furniture designed to create a focused, productive space, such as Nucraft’s circular-shaped Arena seating collection. Users can plug into power coves and nodes hidden in the furniture and press one button to share what’s on their screen.

powering up
As mobile devices proliferate in our daily lives, our need for electricity is exploding. From Wi-Fi to Bluetooth to 4G, we are sending more data wirelessly, and in turn, demanding more power from our batteries. That means that the offices, classrooms and public spaces of the future will need to accommodate our increasingly constant need to recharge.

For Mike Suomi, principal and director of design with Stonehill & Taylor, the reality of the situation became apparent after researching the typical user of extended stay properties for the design and launch of the Hyatt House hotel brand, along with a custom, high-tech chair (read more about Hyatt House and the chair here).

“People who are traveling and using lobbies often have more personal technology than four years ago,” Suomi says. “Four years ago, somebody might have had their smartphone or a laptop; these days, people will have one or two smartphones, they may have a separate mp3 player, they may have a tablet computer or a laptop, or sometimes even both. Their needs for power have doubled or tripled over the last couple of years.”

But a future filled with tangles of cords and cables doesn’t seem like much of a future at all. What if devices could power themselves, easily and without our intervention, from existing sources of energy in the room or special devices embedded in the walls? For Keith Metcalf, senior industrial designer with Kimball Office, it’s not far-fetched at all. “I see the wireless power and data being incorporated into the building. Whenever you set your laptop on a table and you’re not using it, it will be able to recharge off the lighting that’s in the room, for example.”

“To be totally untethered from outlets will open new doors to our work styles,” he adds.

That vision may not be far off. Wireless power technologies such as Powermat have been on the market for years now, enabling users with a special phone case to drop their devices onto a surface that wirelessly recharges their device. Applications of the technology have been shown at NeoCon since at least 2009, and innovative manufacturers like Bretford Manufacturing and Teknion have begun offering Powermat as an option in casegoods and furniture.

“Incorporating Powermat products into our EDU 2.0 line allows Bretford to fully support the use of technology in learning environments,” says Mikel Briggs, president of Bretford Manufacturing. “Not only is it convenient and universal for students and educators, but it truly allows them to have technology at their fingertips so the focus is on learning and collaborating instead of worrying about the electronic components.”

Unfortunately, as the creators of wireless technologies continue to compete for market dominance in much the same way the creators of Blu-Ray and HD DVD technologies battled (or VHS-Beta, depending on your frame of reference), the consumer electronics and furniture industries have been waiting for a mature, cohesive standard to emerge before diving in wholeheartedly.

Until then, furniture designers remain focused on bringing power directly to users and doing their best to camouflage the cords. For example, Kimball Office’s Villa lounge seating collection features a variety of pop-up power and USB outlets, while Coalesse’s PowerPod conceals a portable power source underneath a handy accessory tray. Products like Connectrac’s V-Series Towers and Smith System’s I~O Post bring power and data directly to students and workers, eliminating the hassle of locating outlets underneath desks.

“All of the mobile devices on your desk certainly open up desk space, but you’ve still got this mess of wires and chargers,” says Hellwig. “Aspects of the furniture that make that simpler to deal with are what we’re concentrating on.”

smart surfaces
Will we eventually get to the point where we will interact directly with our surfaces, using our desks, tables and walls to share our latest presentation, without needing to plug in a computer or tablet? For many designers, the next frontier is turning our spaces into responsive tools that can help us work faster, collaborate more intuitively and never get lost.

“I do think strongly that the future of office spaces are surfaces,” says Metcalf, noting that studies of 5-year-olds who are handed Blackberry phones find that their first impulse is to try and manipulate the screen directly, instead of using the buttons.

That future appears to be approaching quickly. New innovations, such as projection units in smartphones, and new materials, such as Bare Paint from Bare Conductive, which rolls on like a standard paint but can allow electrical signals to run across a variety of surfaces, promise to transform our walls and floors into interactive tools. Microsoft’s Surface 2 platform now allows designers to embed fully interactive digital surfaces in a variety of places.

“In terms of all surfaces now, including ceilings and walls, they’re getting more active,” says Bob Hutchinson, chief innovation strategist with Mannington Commercial. “You’re going to start seeing the headliners and panels inside of cars become active touch surfaces, and that’s going to telescope through to flooring.”

Mannington Commercial has already begun exploring the intersection of flooring and technology; the company’s QR carpeting collection, which features patterns inspired by QR code technologies, is capable of being mixed in with LVT tiles that feature actual QR codes on them, enabling wayfinding in public spaces or delivering coupons to shoppers in a particular area of a store, for example. Designers have also come up with clear carpets capable of being backlit, but according to Hutchinson and Natalie Jones, vice president, commercial brand development and creative product for Mannington, that’s just the beginning of what is possible. Flooring may one day be able to track people’s movements through a building and provide customized wayfinding, alert staff when there is a spill, or completely absorb the impact of a fall.

“It’s about the merging of the digital with the analog,” says Jones. “Technology is out there, but it really becomes practical when you can use that digital technology to connect with the analog world.”

Engineers and designers at Nucraft have also been experimenting with surfaces, albeit in a slightly different way. With the advent of what Leete calls “induction sound technology,” designers can turn entire conferencing tables into loudspeaker systems by connecting small induction drives to the bottom of the table. The effect is that callers sound as if they’re coming directly from the work surface, effectively banishing the three-legged conferencing phone from the room.

“The one thing about technology with architects and designers is that the aesthetic they are looking to achieve is often marred by technology,” says Leete. “Well, we’re talking to you in our conference space, and there’s no phone.”

Visit our Inside Sources blog to read extended interviews with the designers and experts quoted in the piece, videos and more!