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The end of desks? A peek at the office of the future

From gesture recognition to high-tech toilets

By Glenn McDonald

The traditional office job has evolved certain indelible qualities over the past 60 years or so, becoming a steady, predictable, more-or-less mandatory part of life. We commute in and out. We sit in chairs. We type on computers. Meetings are convened. They are interminable. Coffee is often involved.

But one variable is changing the traditional office job rapidly in the 21st century: technology. Here are some emerging technologies — some incredible, some goofy, some a little spooky — that could change the office experience over the next two decades. Some are still in the tinker phase in research labs. Others may be in your office right now.

The Big Picture

What will future office buildings and plazas look like? One heartening 21st-century trend is that big buildings and city spaces are a lot more eco-friendly than they used to be. Architecture changes slowly, so near-future changesFor the eye-popping far-future stuff, check out eVolo magazine’s annual Skyscraper Competition. are likely to be small and iterative. Consider the European startup concept called CityTree, a mobile moss structure designed to scrub pollutants from the air in city parks and commercial plazas.

The Commute

The advent of the laptop computer, the smart phone, and wireless internet access have already changed the experience of commuting: Lots of us now find ourselves working while we’re traveling to the office on the subway, train, or bus.

We may soon be working in our cars, too. Some companies are designing self-driving cars that essentially function as mobile offices. Set your destination, flip a switch, and the interior of the car morphs into an office configuration: The driver’s seat swivels around, desks pop out of the floor, side windows turn into electronic displays. This isn’t just sketchbook noodling; some of these next-generation vehicles are already scheduled for production, like Volkswagen’s I.D. Buzz minivan, slated to hit the production line next year. While the first wave of these vehicles won’t be fully driverless, they’ll be built to take advantage of the technology when it does arrive. With the I.D. Buzz, for instance, you can flip seats into office mode, but you’ll need to be parked to do so.

A little farther down the development track, several automakers are now designing concept vehicles like the Toyota e-Palette, pictured above, which can serve as multi-purpose “rooms on wheels” for a full-service office-to-office commute.

Nature Calls

In the spirit of exhaustive inquiry, we may as well acknowledge that bathroom breaks are a part of office life. The future experience in this arena may be changing as well.

For some of us, in 20 years, the office experience could be unrecognizable.

A surprisingly wide range of so-called “smart toilets” are now installed in restrooms both public and private. Most of them are in Japan, which has long been enthusiastic about toilet technology. (No, really.) Standard workplace accommodations are likely to evolve toward products like Kohler’s Numiline of toilets, which incorporates water-saving technology, hands-free operation of the lid and flushing mechanism, and Bluetooth connectivity.

Weird science note: The Bluetooth option may seem ridiculous, but it’s a holdover from early designs aimed at the luxury home market. (The idea is to let you play your own music during quality time.) One unsettling side effect: Smart toilets can be hacked.

Office Space

Entire segments of the retail furniture business are dedicated to selling you on the tables and chairs and office décor of the near future — standing desks and ergonomic smart chairs. Yet the true office of the future may not even have them.

The End of Sitting is an experimental installation in Holland that imagines a future office space of dynamic geometries and surfaces. A collaboration between artist Barbara Visser and the design studio Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances (RAAAF), the project is an attempt to radically rethink the office paradigm: “to develop a concept wherein the chair and desk are no longer unquestionable starting points.”

Virtual Reality

In some fast-forward workplaces, the physical office already is being replaced by the virtual office. Case in point: Ford Motor Company. At the automaker’s facilities in Michigan, California, Germany and China, engineers spend most of their time strapped into VR headsets. They may be physically sitting in Michigan or Germany, but the real workplace is the Ford Vehicle Immersion Environment (FiVE), a virtual reality construct where designers collaborate on immersive 3D models of concept vehicles. Physical distance is irrelevant and engineers on different continents work side by side.

Such collaborative VR workplaces are popping up all over the place in manufacturing and other industries. Virtual reality is such a complex and fast-moving technology that it’s tricky to prognosticate. But based on the money and resources being poured into the field, many more office workers will be strapping on goggles and gloves in the not-so-distant future.

Speech Recognition

Speech recognition has earned mainstream acceptance with remarkable speed, relative to other major consumer tech transitions. (Just ask your Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri.) Now the office environment is working to catch up. Expect many common data entry tasks to migrate from the keyboard to the microphone — something that’s already happening for common tasks like scheduling meetings and composing memos and emails. The emerging consensus is that, in the next 10 to 20 years, speech recognition will supplant the keyboard as our primary way of communicating with various workplace machines.

The idea isn’t all that new, actually. Veterans of the personal computer revolution can tell you that workplace speech recognition tech has been around since the 1990s. Alas, to indulge in industry jargon, it has traditionally sucked. The surprising accuracy of today’s systems is due almost entirely to recent advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, plus better microphones.

Gesture recognition

Like speech recognition, gesture recognition is a shift in human-computer interaction, focused on body language. For those who work with the usual office setup — sitting and facing a screen — desktop toolsets like the Leap Motion system are pointing the way to the future. Leap has released several systems over the years that use infrared cameras to track the movement of your hands and fingers. Using gestures, you can manipulate data and virtual objects on a traditional computer display or, more likely, a virtual reality headset. There’s even some talk of developing an imaginary keyboard.

For now, this kind of exacting manual control over virtual objects is only useful in certain industries, such as engineering, design, gaming, and medicine. But expect to see more gesture control options in the average workplace as this technology evolves.

Welcome to the Machine

If you plot out the future trajectory of technologies like virtual reality, AI, robotics, and speech recognition, the dividing line between human and machine starts to blur. The ultimate man-machine connection is BCI, or brain-computer interface, the catch-all term for technologies that establish direct communication between the human brain and an external (or internal!) machine. This may seem like science fiction, but it’s getting pretty real, pretty fast. Last year, Stanford researchers demonstrated a BCI system that translates brain waves into letters and words, allowing paralyzed patients to type sentences just by thinking them.

In April 2018, a University of California San Francisco research team unveiled a similar neuroprosthetic device that transcribes the brain waves generated when a person hears a particular phrase or sentence. It doesn’t transcribe spoken words, mind you; it transcribes the brain signals triggered by spoken words. Think that one through and you can see how things could get scary in a hurry. On the upside, both systems require surgical brain implants for now, which may discourage the squeamish.

Follow the Patents

The United States Patent and Trademark Office operates a massive text and image database that’s open to the public. Mining the data can be tricky, but for amateur lookee-loos, free online tools like Latest Patents website make for fun excavation. Here you can track what patents are being filed by leading technology companies like Apple, Google, or IBM.

For instance, recent filings from Amazon list patents for “Robotic grasping of items” and “Gaze assisted object recognition.” Google has “Autonomous vehicle seat” and “Personalized electronic magazine.” Apple just filed a bunch of new patents that suggest the company is investing heavily in the concept of interactive clothing. Touchscreen shirts. Interactive pants. This sort of thing.

Surely, some of these technologies will make their way into the workplace — whether to expand productivity or enhance break time. For some of us, in 20 years, the office experience could be unrecognizable. So long as there’s still coffee, we’ll be all right.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


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