Chained to the office?

While mobile tech holds R&D teams the world over in a state of frenzy, the AMBIENTE research team is taking a very different view of human computer interaction (HCI). Free your mind in the Workspace of the Future.

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  September 8, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|One plus one will only ever equal two when those digits come together in a positive environment. For numbers, that’s deep within the defaced pages of your old school textbook. For the rest of us, however, we’re talking about a sound-dampened room with subtle lighting and silky smooth surfaces; a spacious area in an uncluttered office, with easy access to varied multimedia.

In other words, and in all probability, we’re not talking about your current cubicle.

Corporate life in the Middle East is an unpredictable affair: in the course of this article we quickly found that this region boasts a precarious mix of cutting-edge conference rooms, armed with ample bandwidth, and substandard “offices”, poorly lit and equally managed.

One common solution is the ultraportable laptop: arm your salesforce with mobile devices, plus serious travel expenses, and stand well back. But while the notion of mobile technology holds R&D departments the world over in a state of frenzy, members of the research team AMBIENTE —Workspaces of the Future, are taking a very different view of human computer interaction (HCI).

Based in Darmstadt, Germany, the experienced team of designers and scientists aren’t convinced that road warriors will be the sole surviving breed of tomorrow's corporate world.

In fact, far from condemning office space as a waste of undeveloped golf courses, the team believes that the challenges of the future are rooted as much in new application areas as in emerging technologies.

A report compiled by Streitz, Tandler, Müller-Tomfelde and Konomi, Towards the Next Generation of Human-Computer Interaction, goes further still by asking — and answering — fundamental questions, like, why bother with concrete?

“If, in principle, one can work anytime anyplace, one could ask why do we still need office buildings? Aren’t they obsolete given the possibilities of modern mobile technology?"

No, is AMBIENTE’s simple response. The chance encounter in the corridor, the shared coffee in the ‘smoking room’, the official morning brainstorms: all are valuable moments for a second look at the project, or problem, of the day.

“In the future, the role of buildings will change," explains Dr. Streitz, manager of research division, AMBIENTE. “They’ll be less a place of individual work and more a place of planned or team co-operation. And meetings by chance, informal encounters, are just as essential for the creative process.”

The role for future architecture, then, is the so-called co-operative building, a space constituted by all your offices and meeting rooms, hallways and cafeterias, but equipped with devices to help you seize the moment, wherever and whenever it might come.

||**||Room with a View|~||~||~|So why don’t we have such tools today? Why has technology thus far failed to penetrate beyond the cubicle? Failed to tap into what AMBIENTE calls “rich affordances for interaction and communication”?

Largely because we’ve limited our research to the desktop PC, argues Dr Streitz. The advent of IT has seemingly blinded us to the possibilities of our physical environment. Instead, desktop displays are seen as the only viable interfaces to digital information.

“As a result, the main focus of research and practice in human-computer interaction was, and still is, concerned with the issues of designing, creating, and using virtual information spaces to be displayed on desktop computers,” reads another 2001 AMBIENTE report.

“But is human-computer interaction really the goal? Isn't it human-information interaction and human-human interaction? Shouldn’t we get rid of the computer as a device in the foreground?”

Enter Roomware: computer-augmented objects integrated into standard room elements, like walls, doors and furniture (and now a registered trademark of GMD, AMBIENTE’s parent organisation).

The fundamental vision is one of invisible technology, literally hiding the technological components out of sight, if not out of mind.

AMBIENTE describes an environment known as i-LAND: an interactive landscape for creativity and innovation. It’s a collective, generic environment, filled with roomware components but networked by BEACH software (Basic Environment for Active Collaboration with Hypermedia), a single user interface that allows your team to collaborate on shared documents over multiple roomware devices.

First up is the DynaWall, the electronic equivalent of large sheets of paper covering the walls of a meeting room. But this is more than just a PC-based flipchart for both creating and organising data.

The sheer size of the DynaWall, over 4m wide, throws up new challenges, namely the rearrangement of information. While human-computer interaction today allows you to move electronic files from one end of the screen to another (much unlike paper), dragging an object over a 4m distance, touching the screen throughout, is hardly convenient.

The DynaWall solves this dilemma with two mechanisms: first, users can “take and put” objects by selecting them, walking freely away and then simply dropping them elsewhere on the display; second, team members can select and “throw” objects (even with different accelerations) from one side to the other, where colleagues can “catch” the object in question.

Further innovations from AMBIENTE include CommChairs, the InteracTable and ConnecTable. CommChairs, mobile chairs with built-in slate computers, allow you to share documents with users in other chairs while the InteracTable, a four-legged platform with a difference, is designed for groups of up to six people, each able to write and draw on a touchscreen panel.

Last but not least, the ConnecTable, primarily a work console for individuals, can integrate easily into a group environment: move multiple ConnecTables together and, once internal sensors have confirmed the distance is close enough, an automatic connection is established forming a single, shared view or virtual workspace.

||**||Virtual Passengers|~||~||~| The final innovation from the German think tank bears the name “Passage” and describes just such a mechanism for linking physical objects to virtual information structures, in other words, bridging the border between the real and digital realms.

Imagine you’re in the cafeteria when inspiration strikes. One option is to scribble on to a napkin: easy to transport, but of course you’ll have to retype your ideas later into a virtual format. Or, you could hurriedly type your memo into the nearby console, creating a digital replica.

But what happens next? To access a shared space and save the file, you’ll still have to drill down into your company's server.

AMBIENTE has an alternative, and it’s one that means you no longer need to “open windows, browse hierarchies of folders or worry about mounted drives to assign that digital information.” Instead, you simply assign your data to a physical object, a physical “bookmark”, perhaps your car keys, and then carry it about your person.

The naming conventions that belong to the Windows operating system today (file extensions, file names and the like) would be decided on your behalf by the dimensions and weight of the physical object.

How does this process take place? How do you recall the virtual data that’s known to the network as your front door key? In AMBIENTE’s new system, physical areas known as “Bridges” are integrated into interactive tabletops or in surfaces at the front of an interactive electronic wall.

Passengers placed on such a bridge can be identified to an accuracy of 0.1g, calling up their virtual counterparts or receiving their digital load in the first place. Simple gestures perform the ‘transfer’ of data and, because the information is never actually stored on the Passenger itself, but only linked to it, any object becomes a likely candidate: a watch, ring, pen or any other arbitrary object.

While the specific mechanism no doubt poses intriguing challenges for the AMBIENTE team — what matters is its shift towards an appreciation for our physical environment. “We used the term building (and not spaces) to emphasise that the starting point of the design should be the real, architectural environment: even a person navigating in the chat rooms of cyberspace is sitting somewhere in the real space.”

||**||Middle East Focus|~||~||~|It’s this level of intelligent, interactive facility that holds the key to the meeting room of the future. But where does the border between concept device and commercial reality fall? And just how far from the future are we in this region?

Abu Dhabi’s GASCO boardroom scooped second place in last year’s global Presentation Magazine Awards 2000, recognised for both its aesthetics and presentation technology, “visually impressive, providing a combination of architectural creativity and high-tech functionality.”

A little further up the UAE coast and, in Dubai, several more examples of sophisticated facilities are shining through the haze of mediocre architecture.

Atop Dubai’s World Trade Centre sits the World Trade Club’s Executive Boardroom (EBR). Polished wood veneer and soft leather seats deliver the final word in VIP treatment, a fact borne out by its rather exclusive members-only regime.

Jebel Ali-based Visionaire, headquartered in Canada, won this local contract, amongst others, on the strength of its technological solutions. “Video conferencing is so important today, as in near future meeting rooms,” explains Charbel Kassas, general manager, business development, Visionaire, “because most of the IT companies here deal consistently with international companies.”

But there’s yet another twist in this tale, and it’s one that pushes tomorrow’s conference room beyond the scope of technology alone. Staying in Dubai, but drifting now towards Jumeirah, we find Dubai Media City is set to transform the Middle East notion of ‘workspace’ forever.

“Tomorrow’s workspace is definitely more than just new technology”, says DMC’s chief executive officer, Saeed Al Muntafiq. “It’s about being able to be networked with other people — not being locked up in one's own office.”

Dubai Media City recently opened its Media Business Centre facility to provide a fully supportive business backbone to media entrepreneurs. In addition to a flexible infrastructure, clients can take advantage of assured sponsorship, simplified visa procedures and skilled business assistants.

“Given the fact that most businesses within the Middle East rely on technology, and taking into consideration the huge costs any entrepreneur or starting business would have to pay in order to purchase such technologies, the Media Business Centre provides its clients with essential services at cost effective prices,” says Al Muntafiq. “The Business Centre allows you to minimize costs, a crucial need for any successful business startup.”

John Quinn, of Satellite fzllc, is as qualified to talk on the Office of the Future as anyone. Operating out of the Media Business Centre itself, with offices also in London and New Zealand, Satellite performs A/V installations in both domestic and corporate environments.

Quinn is clear on the challenges of the future. “The world is faster than ever,” he argues. “Companies are flatter and more dispersed. Customers are more impatient. Yet, when it comes to finding, acquiring, and outfitting office space, most organisations do it the same old way.”

So what’s the solution? “Instant offices,” he continues. “Business centres around the world that are fully furnished, fully equipped, and fully staffed. Available by the hour, the day, the week, the month, or the year — wherever and whenever a customer chooses. You can be up and running in Dubai as soon as you step off the plane. Renting an instant office should be as fast and as easy as renting a car.”


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