By Regina Raiford
Over the past few weeks, movie theatres across the country are showing the latest version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. This feature, along with countless films, books, and television shows, is exploring the concept of leaping into the future. Grand Rapids, MI-based Steelcase Inc., in partnership with IBM, Hawthorne, NY, has developed its version of the future with BlueSpace, an office architecture prototype. The prototype is a marriage of ingenuous technology and responsive design. More importantly, the collaborators paid close attention to the needs of knowledge workers to create a space that does not merely support work – but anticipates it.
“I would define BlueSpace as a visual prototype of some technologies, digital technologies from IBM’s standpoint, and new furniture-type technologies from us,” explains Marc Greiner, Steelcase, Grand Rapids, MI, “and how they come together in a new and unique way to support individual and dyadic work.” One of the biggest challenges in traditional office plans is creating spaces that support privacy as well as group activities.
To understand the difficulties knowledge workers face, Steelcase studied individuals via video ethnography, note-taking, and silent observation in the workplace for several years. “We used anthropological observation techniques to capture the behavior of people. When you go and talk to somebody about what is happening in the office, they say, ‘I don’t like this or I don’t like that.’ They can’t really tell you what they don’t realize is happening,” explains Greiner.
After several years of studying latent behavior in the workplace, Steelcase researchers recognized patterns of work – activities that are repeated from company to company, from end-user to end-user. “We did the observations, we observed the patterns, and then we started to put together some solutions that responded to these patterns,” says Greiner.
The company has been involved with ergonomics for 25 years, and has branched into social, cultural, and cognitive sciences. For this undertaking, Steelcase combined its expertise with IBM’s focus on pervasive computing in the workplace. “The reason that this is so important is because of the trend from individual-focused space design to group-focused design,” says Greiner.
Productive team-based workspaces are by their very nature more complex and multifunctional. “Most offices still focus on the individual and then address the team with remaining spaces,” says Greiner. “We think the future will be a total flip of that.” Greiner predicts offices of the future will be designed for the team first, built around the dynamics of the community.
Who do you trust? The office prototype BlueSpace responds to “trust networks.” Trust networks are the communities we truly work with inside of organizations, the individuals we communicate with on a regular basis. “Who do you talk to? Who do you hang out with? That’s how knowledge is transferred; that’s how innovation occurs within these connections,” says Greiner. This is just one example of the changing workplace and the need for flexible facilities.
Other trends include the generational span; in the near future, four generations will interact in the workplace. From temperature control, to lighting needs, to acoustics, facilities will need to adapt to these generations’ divergent needs and cultural differences. Another trend is mobility. Cell phones, pagers, PDAs, laptops, technology – for good or bad – has made it possible to never be off work. Adds Greiner, “Work is a social process, but that socialization does not necessarily have to be in the office building.” BlueSpace works in concert with PDAs, expanding the definition of the workspace.
Another trend is the pervasiveness of information, the idea that information has to be persistent to be truly understood. Consider how much time is spent after a meeting trying to recapture the information created. “What if you clicked the light and it left the room exactly the way you had it a week ago with information on white boards?” asks Greiner. The answer to meeting these challenges lies in forming seamless connections among furniture, worksurfaces, and technology.
The monitor in BlueSpace actually represents several innovations. IBM’s definition of pervasive computing translates into two screens: One screen is work activity-focused; the other can display reference materials. The second screen can also be used to interact with other staff members; check on a team member’s status; control the workspace’s temperature, noise level meters, light intensity and color, airflow, and humidity; or even check the weather and the stock report. The indicators are user-friendly icons and can be easily adapted to suit end-users’ needs.
Have you ever waited all day for a critical e-mail, checking your inbox over and over? “I really don’t want to see all the e-mails I am getting, but when that particular e-mail comes in, a subtle indicator on the second screen lets me know. Instead of taking me out of my zone of concentration, I would know at the appropriate time to wind down and open my e-mail,” says Greiner.
Research has shown that distraction in the workplace can impact end-users’ productivity. “You don’t need four closed walls to get the feeling of individual space. You just need the sense that there is an outer perimeter of my space,” says Greiner. IBM designed the monitor rail to swing freely so that workers can adjust their screens for privacy for tasks demanding high concentration. BlueSpace also has a movable threshold wall to add a sense of privacy and personal space.
In addition to a sense of space, the threshold wall has a front display for visitors and co-workers so that an end-user can detail his status and current projects as well as personalize it with images. “The threshold wall is a technology totem. It is a carrier of technology, lighting, and a status bar,” notes Tony Levas, project leader, BlueSpace, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY. The movable panel is attached to an overhead status light with different colors to designate an occupant’s availability.
One of the most exciting features of BlueSpace is its everywhere display. A projector with a mirror, it allows an occupant to have an interactive projection on any surface in the work environment. “It can deliver information and interaction when and where you need it. It can move when you move. It is a dynamic screen,” says Levas. For example, e-mail messages can be displayed wherever the occupant is in the work environment.
The use of active badges is another aspect of BlueSpace’s contextual awareness: The everywhere display will automatically flip from information to a decorative mural when visitors enter the workspace. Active badges also allow the office to respond instantly to an end-user’s personal setting for lighting and temperature. “As I approach the workspace, it knows my preferences and will come to life,” says Levas. In addition, BlueSpace’s seating has a wireless sensor that activates the end-user’s lighting pre-sets for seated tasks or teaming activities.
Currently, the creators are working with a half dozen early adopters and daring companies, where the product can be tested in a real-world application. Designed for knowledge workers with high information needs, BlueSpace’s ideal applications would be product development, trading companies, consulting and law firms, among others. “When you create the right solution of architecture and furniture technology, and [workers] use it, like it, and feel better, that relates to worker retention. Effectiveness is also a measure of the ability to keep your high-caliber knowledge workers,” says Greiner.
BlueSpace will be refined during this usability testing period to create the optimal design. The new architecture is expected to launch in five to eight years. Adds Greiner, “The facilities manager tends to focus on the needs of the building itself; the IT person focuses on bringing in the technology. In the world of the future, we’ll say those jobs have to be thought of together.”
Regina Raiford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.