Posted on 2/3/2012 11:28 AM by Adam

As you might imagine, writing a feature article for a magazine—especially one that required so much input from experts, like “The Office of Tomorrow (Today!)”—typically results in pages upon pages of unused interview transcripts, destined to sit quietly on the corner an editor’s desk.

Well, there were so many interesting insights gleamed during my interviews for this feature piece that I couldn’t just keep them to myself. Below you’ll find extended insights from the designers and product specialists interviewed for this February feature, along with a few videos of referenced products in action.

If you haven’t already, check out the finished feature, either in our HTML format or in our slick digital edition, and tell us about your vision for the office (and school and public space and hospital) of the future in the comments section or at our Facebook and Twitter pages!

Todd Metcalf, senior industrial designer, Kimball Office

In terms of wireless power for mobile devices, what’s holding up the wider implementation of it? Are you limited by the devices themselves?

We’ve heard about wireless power for the past five or six years, and it’s been shown at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas] so many different times and ways. We’re seeing a process totally different from what we saw with Bluetooth, however. We heard about [Bluetooth] back in the early 1990s, and it was developed fairly quickly, but there was a joint effort of all these companies coming together and saying, ‘We’re going to make our devices Bluetooth compatible.’ All of the sudden you had these Bluetooth devices on the market in the mid to late ‘90s.

The wireless power companies on the other hand, they didn’t necessarily do that. It seemed like they were trying to compete in that market to see who could beat who—each of those manufacturers came out with their own devices that competed with one another, and the consumer was confused about which one to buy. Hence, that’s the same thing that we see from a corporate level in dealing with wireless power. It seems like it’s going back to the companies in trying to decide their own kind of standard, so your biggest challenge as a furniture person is if you support one device but don’t support another, we’re going to limit ourselves. It’s similar to our dataports—each individual company is going to spec something, and we’re going to just come up with the means of supporting that, regardless of what it is. And I think that’s the best way to do it, regardless of the technology.

So are you waiting for a more standardized product to appear on the market?

I don’t like using the word waiting, because we’re not—we’re just making sure that if one standard wins out, we’ll support it. If another standard doesn’t win, but there’s still some out there, we’re still going to support it, because both sets of users could be customers of ours and we’re going to support them, whatever they need.

Scott Sadler, product manager of media:scape, Steelcase

How is the workplace changing, and how is technology changing collaboration?

With the way that work is changing—it’s becoming more global, becoming more mobile with these globally integrated enterprises—our customers are asking us for environments that help them innovate faster. When it comes to innovating, we know that people need to collaborate. Collaboration takes not only information and technology into account, but also the space plays a huge role. So when you start to think about the traditional conference room and being designed for a leader-led presentation, and then trying to collaborate inside the very formal postures of being able to see information or make eye contact with other people, it becomes a bit of a challenge. When you throw technology into the mix… you’ve got typically a VGA cable sticking out of a table somewhere, and so do I need to try and connect my VGA cable to my computer? Do I hit F5 or F8? Is this the projector, and if so, where’s the remote control? It just becomes a challenge, and when there are barriers to collaboration, it begins to break down.

Technology can certainly be a barrier, but at the same time it can also help to solve some serious problems as well. Media:scape was designed to help facilitate collaboration and the flow of collaboration without having those barriers.

Are there currently limits in technology that, once resolved, will cause video conferencing and HD conferencing to explore on a larger scale?

I think there are. Once again, it is a matter of bandwidth and the cost of bandwidth, it’s a matter of the cost of the hardware pieces that come together, but I think it’s also—and I think it speaks well to our industry and what we do—it’s also about the application. It’s not enough to just bring technology to the table. The environment needs to be really well thought out—the application has to support the type of work that’s being done.

Telepresence is absolutely amazing—you literally feel like you’re sitting right across the table from the person on the far side. The lighting, the acoustics, everything is so finely tuned that it feels like I could reach through and shake the guy’s hand. But when we think about how collaboration is really done and what tools need to be involved in order to collaborate, it’s not just being able to see the guy and feeling like they’re in the same room; it’s also about seamlessly being able to share information without having to hold my laptop up and turning it around. I need to have displays that are large enough so that they can see wherever they are seated around the table. Everybody needs to be able to share that information with everyone else, and so the application for these tools becomes increasingly important—and probably more critical than ever before—because companies are making huge investments in the technology hardware, and if it’s not applied correctly, it’s simply a wasted investment.

(Here's Scott showing off media:scape mini at the 2012 CES show, which happened just before our interview)

John Hellwig, vice president of design strategy and research, Teknion

What will the office look like in the next 10 to 15 years?

I don’t know about 15 years, or even 10—that’s virtually impossible to predict. Being a bit more pragmatic, I do see some things that are coming—large displays for one. You see the high-definition 80-inch televisions now and they’re pretty spectacular; in an office environment, you can definitely see a great deal of application for wall-sized displays.

I think a lot of technologies that come on, historically, appear to be additive—in other words, you have paper first, and then the PC comes. Paper stays but you add wires. Wireless comes, and it’s just an added-on piece to the wires. It doesn’t replace anything—it’s just one more added thing. So then we got mobility—that was added in. If we look at large displays, mobile projection, those kinds of aspects, those will be added capabilities. They will change what you can do, but the change comes, I think, relatively slowly. The technology comes quickly, but people figuring out how to use it and reaching a certain critical mass where it actually changes something takes a little bit longer.

Going back to when the PC started, they were pretty crude products. They had lots of glitches, they were rapidly changing, and I think all of the technology that supports meeting and interaction hasn’t quite come into its own yet. We haven’t been able to use it smoothly—we’ve seen it used smoothly in places, but it’s not widespread. I think an information-rich room that can be connected to the outside with high-fidelity images coming from different places and easily being able to be able to easily manipulate those, that’s what I see as a future meeting room.

How has technology changed our relationship to our offices? How has your company worked to make the use of technology more fluid?

I think the whole ergonomic story around visual displays is once again becoming very important. I think multiple monitors have done that, but also the density of information that people are trying to put onto these screens. With our MAST product, we made it very wide open—you can go up to eight monitors, you can put an iPad on it, you can use dual monitors, which is very common now. I know myself, not that long ago, I had to get glasses with both near-sighted and far-sighted lenses, and using a laptop with that is pretty difficult—it tends to give you neck pains and so forth. I thought had something pretty seriously wrong with me until our ergonomist came over and said, ‘No, no, this is what it is.’ We thought that in some ways everyone being mobile and running around with their smartphone that desk-associated ergonomic problems would go away, but I think that they’ve intensified.

And you know, I think that we always say you can work anywhere, anytime with these mobile devices, and it is true, but it’s only a certain type of work. You can stay in touch with each other, you can send images and files, but you wouldn’t want to do a CAD drawing or major number crunching. So the connection between that technology and what you’ve got back at home base—usually still the office—is important as well.

Bob Surman, product development manager, Nucraft
Larry Leete, new business development manager, Nucraft

How will conferencing spaces look in 10 years? How will technology change how we collaborate?

Larry: From a technological perspective, consumer technology is going to take over and absorb the technology that has been developed for the workplace. People are used to, and want to be able to utilize very intuitive technologies. We all know that the stuff we use at work is far more complicated than the stuff we use at home. The iPad, the iPod, tablets, those sorts of technologies are starting to become ubiquitous within the consumer environment, and when people come to work, they don’t want to be afraid of using technology, because they’re using it at home. It’s going to be driven by intuitive interfaces.

Bob: Just to add to what Larry said, it’s sort of a continuation of what we’ve been seeing, in the sense that many of our customers and designers we work with are coming to us and saying they need that conference space to work harder. Everybody is trying to get more out of every square foot of real estate—they’re trying to make spaces work harder. That means that those spaces need to be very nimble, they can no longer serve a single purpose, so the idea that a boardroom is just a boardroom and gets used 10 percent of the year and sits vacant 90 percent of the year, is going away. Our customers are asking us for products and technologies that make that room a high-tech, beautiful boardroom one day and a training room the next day. From a furniture standpoint, that means furniture that is adaptable.

How do you technologies and the spaces in which we work interacting on the far horizon?

Larry: If you really want to get Buck Rogers-ish, I think one of the things that is really interesting as we look forward is the whole aspect of mesh networking. What I mean by that is as soon as I walk into the door, my ID badge is sucked up into the ether into a mesh network, which recognizes that I’m here. It signals to my office that I’ve entered the building, it turns my lights on, it boots up my laptop, and it might even start a cup of coffee for me before I’m ready to go. Based on my day-to-day needs, as I schedule conference space and meeting rooms, the system recognizes from my calendar that I’ve reserved a room, and then predials, for example, you for a conference call, and has it all set up for us to start before we’re even ready to go. That stuff is starting to happen—it recognizes the individual and starts to set the space up to respond to those specific needs as an individual enters the space. I don’t want to say you’re going to put a chip in your head, but it’s likely going to fall into your data badge.

Or maybe your phone, considering that no one is ever caught without theirs these days?

Larry: It’s kind of funny that you mention the phone. With our Dialogue product, currently you use a standard remote control to dial, but we’re looking at… say, before I came into this conference room to call you, I scanned a QR code with my phone. That would allow me to take control over the monitor and computer and drive it from my phone. People are used to utilizing their phones for all kinds of things, so that’s kind of the first step in the whole aspect of the responsive workplace.

(Here's an introduction to Nucraft's Dialogue system, via YouTube)

Bill Risdall, president, Smith System

What do you envision educational spaces looking like in 10 years?

We’ve been selling collaborative learning furniture for about 12 years or so, and it’s moving more into we’re calling social learning, where the students actually are working together to create things. They’re actually sitting together and working on one device, or have their own devices—which they will in the future—and they’ll be plugging in from their device into an HDMI port into an overview screen. They’ll each be able to take control of that screen to put their information up in front of the class.

Do you see things continuing down this path? For example, are distance web classes going to be seen in more schools in the future?

I think that’s a big deal that’s coming on really strong—the library as we know it is going away, and it’s getting replaced with these social learning environments. The whole Skype concept is a big deal now. [Students] are going to libraries, and they’ll have a topic they’re on, and they’ll Skype with two or three other schools around the world and just share their thoughts on the topic. They just have to set up an appointment, and then they Skype across the planet. The world is going to change a great deal here, and technology is obviously a big part of that.

Bob Hutchinson, chief innovation strategist, Mannington Commercial
Natalie Jones, vice president, commercial brand development and creative product, Mannington Commercial

What can you tell us about the origins of your company’s QR carpeting line? How did that come about?

Natalie: We worked with some Korean industrial designers last year, and their expertise and educational background was with Samsung electronics, so they were very interested in how with LED lighting now you can incorporate that into the flooring, and different effects that you can create. They also brought a global perspective to us, which was really unique and kind of pushed the way that we think.

Bob: They had no experience in carpets at all until Natalie brought them aboard, and of course they were absolutely charmed and fascinated by it, and offered us this idea of the QR code. With our production capabilities, we can easily replicate that kind of thing, so it was a wonderful fusion of industrial designers from the Samsung Institute working with us and our technology to come up with something completely novel.

In terms of future technologies or applications, is there any technology that needs to mature before more advanced concepts can work?

Bob: I think the applications are all there—nothing that we’ve mentioned is anything that you can’t see somewhere. There are, of course, a lot of parallel currents going on. One of them right now is the exploration of bio-bases as a replacement for petrochemicals, and we’re deep into that research as a company. One of the things we’re experimenting with right now is industrial fermentation, where you can take all of the waste that’s alongside the road and synthesize it into a bio-based polyester and bio-based nylon and so forth. Natalie and I are looking hot and hard at the technological stuff we can graft into what we’re doing, but also in terms of raw materials sourcing, we’re looking at the environmental context and the social responsibility that we need to employ for the future.