Almost all furniture and space is designed around the requirement and function of visual communication: sitting around a table allows for eye contact with one another; working at a desk allows for interaction with touchpoints and screens; more reclined and sumptuous sofas and chairs emerged from the proliferation of televisual entertainment. Meeting spaces enable shared access to large-scale presentation material and lounge spaces are designed for comfortable conversation.
Historically, the table has had many functions, but its surface was most consistently designed for the presentation, consumption and sharing of food and company. Via the desk, it developed a symbiotic relationship with the act of writing; the paper and pen were designed to be used on this flat surface. In the last century, typewriters replaced the pen, and then personal computers replaced the typewriter. Each typology was designed around the ergonomics of sitting at a table. The term desktop computer is testimony to that.
In the last twenty-five years, the ways we access data and information for work has slowly been untethered from the desk. Mobile phones, portable computers and WiFi allow us to work disconnected from a physical surface. Perhaps the last drag on this is the monitor and keyboard that we use to control complex large-scale software applications.
Challenging all we know about work environments
Although current iterations of mixed-reality headsets can feel claustrophobic and limit peripheral vision, which is an important sensory input, they may be the next step in this journey to complete freedom of movement. They could challenge everything we know and assume to be fixed in terms of our work and entertainment environments.
What we once thought to be science fiction has, since the pandemic, rapidly accelerated to become ubiquitous in the workplace. At home and work, platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Google Meet have reinvented how we interact, enabled the “work-from-home revolution” and led to globally distributed teams and new business models, but they are still clumsy and uncomfortable experiences. Audio is generally poor, the act of sharing content is clunky and we lose the nuance of eye contact, body language and atmosphere that being in a room together provides.
Could these processes and functions be reimagined again and improved by technology like Apple Vision Pro? Quite possibly, but with our eyes and facial expressions being obscured by the current goggle format, and without the subtle, over-the-shoulder or around-the-monitor interactions, digital work via headset will become uniquely isolated and insular.
Vision Pro’s EyeSight feature attempts to address this, but nothing can replace genuine eye contact and the micro movements in facial expressions. This will change the culture of working in a shared physical space. As a studio, we previously explored this topic in our ‘VR Veil’ enquiry.
Reframed around mobility and movement
In the workplace, this technology could be one more nail in the coffin of the traditional desk and meeting space. At home, how and where we access and consume entertainment and communicate with friends could be fundamentally reframed around mobility and movement.
In healthcare settings, medical professionals could access patient data in real time, while with patients or even in surgery. While on the move, at an airport, on a plane or train, we could take with us our entire suite of workplace applications and remain productive or entertained.
Whether for work or leisure, the consumption and use of data through headsets will no doubt stimulate new spatial and ergonomic typologies. The rooms themselves, the furniture, the lighting, the acoustics – maybe even the colour and texture of the space around us – could all find new expressions and realities in a Vision Pro world.
There is no need for a fixed body position when the interactions to carry out digital work via spatial computing are mid-air gestures, and the visual display becomes mobile in a headset. Users will be able to work in an ergonomic position that suits their body or mood, rather than merely adjust a chair and desk within a finite range of motion. Our perception of productivity will have to change when the most suitable position to write an essay, detail a building or dial-in to a board meeting could well be lying down on a bed.
New types of space for virtual and mixed reality
Facilities will have to provide much more than a uniform desking solution with ergonomic adjustment because the variety of ergonomic positions for productive work will increase. Without the requirement for seated, desk-based work, the only tables that survive may be for communal, in-person meetings and the use of pen and paper. The modern office, which often takes the form of banks of desks with back-to-back monitors may disappear entirely. What it will be replaced by may be more akin to the low-level adaptable seating of a Majlis, a traditional Arabic communal space.
New types of space will emerge tailored specifically for virtual and mixed reality working. Mixed reality is more likely to retain some of the ergonomics of a collective workplace, whereas virtual reality will require personal and private environments. The entertainment and museum sectors are already testing ideas around mixed and virtual reality use in collective environments, so we should learn from the successes and failures in these settings.
Despite the mixed reality proposition of seeing content and the environment around you at the same time, perhaps the biggest obstacle to the success of products such as Vision Pro remains the solitary nature of wearing a headset and the disassociation from those around you that this creates. We have already seen how laptops, tablets and smartphones have isolated families from each other, whereas the TV, which is a shared screen, actually brought them together. The struggles that virtual reality and the metaverse are having in truly entering our everyday lives is testimony to this.
A return to older workplace dynamics
As futuristic and disruptive as Vision Pro appears to be, it may return workplace ergonomics to the dynamics of centuries ago. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, early office design was predominantly based around standing at sloping desk surfaces to lay out and organise paperwork.
Sitting at a desk for eight hours a day is a relatively recent idea and not a healthy one. Referring to the basic inconsistency of sitting to a healthy body, in recent years, the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ has emerged. Back pain now accounts for 25% of all absences in the workplace and sitting contributes to the sedentary existence that harms us all. Once again, standing has become a familiar ergonomic for desks, meetings and workshop spaces and Vision Pro may help to continue this trend towards a chair-free office.
Illustration copyright Pearson Lloyd, Vision Pro images courtesy of Apple