Steelcase IBM Form HighTech Office Team

April 12, 2002
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You get to work and walk into your cubicle. As you enter, the lights flicker on automatically and adjust to a pre-set level.

As you sit in your chair, sensors imbedded in the seating send out a signal that tells your computer to boot up and what software applications to turn on.

Lights on a moveable overhead beam turn green, signaling to co-workers across the office that you are at your desk. Don’t want to be bothered or need time alone to make deadline on a project? A quick tap at a touch-screen computer monitor changes the light to red, preventing unwanted disruptions.

The same touch-screen monitor also allows you to adjust temperature controls within your work area.

When working or meeting with a team, a built-in system projects what’s on your computer onto the cubicle wall for convenient interaction. If the material is sensitive in nature, a signal emitted by an electronic identification badge worn by all employees causes the projected image to quickly change when they enter the work area.

Sound futuristic? It is, although some of the components of what’s dubbed the “office of the month” are potentially just around the corner.

Welcome to BlueSpace, an office prototype developed under a joint venture between Steelcase Inc. and IBM Corp. that mixes high-tech gadgetry with modern office design to produce a workplace that greatly enhances the comfort and productivity of office workers.

“It’s making everything work together using technology,” said Joel Stanfield, a research engineer at Steelcase who’s working on the BlueSpace project.

The idea is to integrate advanced technologies and interfaces into the architectural components of a workspace to make them as seamless and useful as possible, helping people feel and work better. The existing prototype, which uses elements of Steelcase’s Pathways furniture system, is the result of a year of research based largely on how people work and interact with office technology.

Steelcase provides the office furnishings and architectural components for BlueSpace, as well as its reservoir of knowledge of workplace design and worker habits. The computer software and hardware that drive the office system’s features come from IBM.

Researchers and engineers from both companies who are involved in the project are presently working with a half-dozen clients — from multi-national corporations to small businesses — to gauge feedback and opinions on the system’s design and functionality.

On-site pilot projects are planned for later this year with selected clients.

While they want to produce an office system that goes beyond anything on the market today, researchers are cognizant they can’t go too far with their design. A high-tech office system that comes across as too advanced or that office workers perceive as too complicated simply won’t win acceptance in the marketplace.

The goal is to have office workers envision themselves working in BlueSpace.

“If you have something too far out there, it’s weird and it makes them unproductive. It’s got to make them more productive. Evolutionary is probably the key,” Charlie Forslund, a Steelcase research engineer on BlueSpace.

Some of the components that make up BlueSpace — such as a highly flexible rail that holds a computer monitor and enables a user to position it anywhere within the work area — could find their way to market in as early as a year.

Ongoing market research and feedback resulting from client demonstration projects will dictate what components are brought to market first, as well as whether BlueSpace as a system is produced and in what fashion.

“We can’t go out there and produce this without really validating it with the users,” Forslund said.

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