More than a smart desk – A desk that conforms to individual prefrences.

Don’t you just despise the lighting at your office desk? And come to chills from the air conditioning? How about that chair that causes you backaches? A group of people are hoping to change that with their vision of a smart desk.


More than a smart desk

The premise is simple: A desk that adjusts its lighting, temperature, height, sitting posture according to each individual’s needs. How neat. And that’s the goal of associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, Burcin Becerik-Gerber. Born out of the years of uncomfortable working conditions at her office, she has set out to redefine what it truly means to have a smart desk.

Question is: What actually is a smart desk? Looking around the net, smart desks seem to have one common theme: an adjustable height more commonly referred to as standing desks. There are some also that have built-in wireless phone charging, built-in document scanner, and built-in wireless headphones. But is there all to it? Surely the term ‘smart’ means something more.

Burcin Becerik-Gerber.

That’s where Burcin Becerik-Gerber’s approach is different. It’s centered on what she terms as “human-building interactions”. Think of it on similar lines like “human-computer interactions”, but with buildings. She has teamed up with Arup, a global engineering firm to come up with a more wholesome solution to the smart desk.

Burcin Becerik-Gerber shares “The [prototype] desk as we have it now attends to thermal comfort, visual comfort, and postural comfort. It has sit-stand, which isn’t new, but the idea is – this is the new part of it, not just the sensors or modeling of preferences or learning the user. Once it learns you and knows what you’re doing, there’s the ideal or the optimal or the healthiest regimen”. She adds “How does a regular object negotiate over time and co-evolve with its user to make the user healthier and more productive? This is the whole idea. It’s not just the sensing.”

In essence, what they aim to do is to have the desk inform and adjust three areas: thermal comfort, visual comfort, and postural comfort. Take the following scenarios: If you’re seated too long, if your sitting position angle isn’t optimal and if the lighting and temperature needs to be adjusted. “We’re thinking around the desk and the chair, the work station. This is going to be the space. The idea is using multiple data points and pulling them together to make sense of everything.” says Burcin Becerik-Gerber.

A typical day at WeWork.

Sounds intriguing? Well another ongoing collaboration is shared workspaces company WeWork and Amazon. They’ve collaborated on creating the “AI Desk”. According to WeWork European Transactions Director Mary Finnigan, their desk will recognize you as you walk to it. It can then adjust the height, temperature and lighting according to your preferences. Mary explains “It’s about customising spaces to suit our members, whilst recognizing that different people can come in and out of the space on a regular basis.” And finally the AI Desk wouldn’t be an AI Desk if Alexa wasn’t inside – and she is.


It’s nice. But is it necessary.

This’s all fine and dandy but is it really necessary? If we look at chairs, adjusting the height is just a lever pull away and there’re already ergonomic seats in the market. And standing desks? That’s considered a luxury at most companies. The only area that works practically I see is thermal and lighting comfort as these conditions are mainly configured company wide and are difficult to customize per user. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to know that a more wholesome approach is being taken by Burcin Becerik-Gerber, Arup and the like to rethink what the smart desk should be. For more info on this topic do check out these links: Link1, Link2, Link3.


Source: Memoori
Image credit: WeWork, USCViterbi, viterbischool