Introducing the smart chair

New flexible office chair designed for mobile workers

Do you cocoon when you're texting? Or strunch when you're laptop gazing? Does your back ache from hunching over small electronic devices and tapping at tiny keypads?

Do you cocoon when you’re texting? Or strunch when you’re laptop gazing? Put another way: Does your back ache from hunching over small electronic devices and tapping at tiny keypads?

Mobile technology is changing how people work, says Steelcase, which studied changing postures in the workplace and created a new office chair geared for people who juggle multiple devices.

The Gesture chair encourages a sitter to move around rather than hold a single position. Set to retail next month for $979, it’s built differently from other desk chairs. The segmented structure is designed for flexibility. (See pictures of Gesture here.)

If a sitter reclines to scroll on a tablet screen, the core shifts and hugs the lower back, for instance. The arms move like human limbs so that a user’s arms and shoulders remain supported when texting, typing on a keyboard or swiping a tablet.

“The workplace and the seating experience had been designed for someone sitting at a computer all day long, not the way people are working today,” said James Ludwig, vice president of global design and engineering at Steelcase, in a video Steelcase created about Gesture. “The human body doesn’t want to remain in one posture all day. It wants to be fluid and be supported dynamically. That’s a big challenge. It caused us to fundamentally rethink how we do a chair.”

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When people interact with mobile technologies, they tend to be more casual than they would be in a traditional office setting. In the workplace, where office chairs are meant for desktop PC users, it can be painful to hunch over a too-low laptop or a strain to view tiny screens.

Small technologies tend to pull the body down, explains Carol Stuart-Buttle of consulting firm Stuart-Buttle Ergonomics.

“If the chair doesn’t move with the user, people slouch to make up for it, or flop on the desk to overcompensate for what is uncomfortable. Workers today are moving from bad posture, to bad posture, to bad posture,” said Stuart-Buttle in a statement. “Gesture helps you be where you need to be – it helps workers find support in smarter ways so they can use their devices in safer ways.”

Steelcase studied 2,000 people in 11 countries to see how we interact with technologies. Specifically, it looked at how the human body responds as workers shift from one device to another -- swapping a laptop for a smartphone, for instance. The studies led Steelcase to distinguish nine district poses.

The nine poses -- as defined by Steelcase -- are:

• The Draw: Technology (small and mobile) allows people to pull back from their desks while they use it. They recline, signaling they’re contemplating or absorbing information and draw the device closer to their body to maintain an optimal focal length.

• The Multi-Device: This posture is representative of how people adapt to multitasking on multiple-devices. One hand holding a phone to the ear, the other tasking on a laptop. The result is a forward lean that is a symbol of concentration and an orientation to the smaller screen of a laptop.

• The Text: Smartphones are small compared to other forms of technology and, therefore, require unique postures. Workers bring arms in close as keying and gesturing are performed.

• The Cocoon: People recline, bring up their feet onto the seat, and draw their smartphone or tablet close, resting on their thighs. The result is a cocoon - small mobile technology allows people to remain productive in this posture.

• The Swipe: This posture results when the device is used on a worksurface in “surfing mode,” in which people operate the device with one hand, typically with swiping gestures. Because it’s on a worksurface, a person must keep their head a certain distance above the tablet in order to see it, and position their head to look down at it.

• The Smart Lean: This posture is the result of mobile devices that create the desire for people to temporarily “pull away” from others without leaving a meeting or collaborative environment. This is typically a temporary posture and used for glancing at incoming texts or e-mails.

• The Trance: This posture was observed when people were focused on the screen and either mousing or using a touchpad to navigate on the screen for extended periods of time. This is a long duration posture.

• The Take It In: In this posture, people recline to view content on the large display and/or sit back to contemplate. This posture is about “taking in” information rather than generating it.

• The Strunch: The “strunch” (stretched-out hunch) is a very common posture with laptops. As people become fatigued, they gradually push their laptop further from the edge of the worksurface, resting their weight on the surface. This causes them to reach forward to work. Since the back and neck cannot sustain the reach and hunch posture for a long time, the person begins to prop themselves up with their non- tasking arm.

“We looked at these new postures in the workplace and asked, ‘what if we could design a chair that encourages motion rather than forcing the body to hold a pose? That supports your arms while texting? That cradles your back while you’re reclining and scrolling? That draws you closer to your work so that you don’t need to hunch over to see the screen? That fosters movement and changing postures as quickly as you change devices?’” Ludwig said.

Steelcase’s solution is Gesture.

Steelcase has been in the business of making office furniture for 100 years. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2012.

Ann Bednarz covers IT careers and Internet culture for Network World. Follow Ann on Twitter at @annbednarz and reach her via email at abednarz@nww.com.

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