the future of office design?

It’s hard to comprehend how fast technology prices plummet and the implications for the built environment. Case in point: 65″ 4K LCDs panels are now cheaper than the cost of typical cubicle workstation dividers.

Don’t believe me? Go to Walmart.com – a 65″ 4K LCD is down to only $30/sqft. And that’s direct-to-consumer retail pricing!

April 2021

How much does a cubicle cost? I found an online catalogue posted from one of the major office furniture manufacturers – a standard divider wall lists from $36-$67/sqft of surface area, depending on the finish material.

Let that sink in for moment:

You can use digital displays as a cheaper way of dividing space than cubicle farms.

Needless to say, the ramifications for our built environment are immense.

Let’s speculate on design: In the most straightforward way, we could take three commodity screens and carve out a typical workstation. Three 4K screens surrounding you? Is this what future offices will look like? Over 36 square feet of luminous display surfaces surrounding you????

If you’re going to be surrounded by a digital display with 12K resolution , what data do you want surrounding you? Is the killer app going to be simply choosing to spend your day virtually in Paris? Or Tahiti? Or the Alps? Maybe you want your environment enriched with ambient communications? Or is it just a big extension of your desktop, filled with tedious Gantt charts and Kanban boards?

Would I consider my concept a slick design? No, not at all – there’s no touch screens, curving displays, fanciful holograms or transparent screens. It certainly isn’t going to show up as the centerpiece of a gorgeous exhibition at the Salone in Milan. But it’s cheap – and let’s face it – most office projects start with cheap first “ROI” first, then everything else is – practically speaking – just a “nice to have.” Assuming a low cost controller (e.g. Raspberry Pi) is used, the hardware cost per workstation is just a hair over $1k – retail list price.

But this poses some interesting challenges for architects, lighting designers, interior designers, industrial designers and UX designers.

Let’s start with the obvious: You’ll note the lack of any architectural lighting in my sketches. Why is it needed with 36 sqft of luminous surface surrounding every desk? And do employees need windows with some view of a trashy parking lot when they can jump to anywhere in the world – or time – or imaginary universe – via the hyper-realistic virtual portal known as their cubicle?

Then let’s consider human nature: In my sketch, is the person working from her laptop? Because even if a person is surrounded by a massive digital display surface – they’ll likely just plunk down & hunch over their laptop because it’s convenient. Do the two tie together? Microsoft sure believes our devices and environments will tie together. Even glass manufacturer Corning thinks that’s the future. Or are the walls just a big animated screen-saver?

Want to make sure your employees are getting healthy blue light to match their circadian rhythms? That beautiful blue sky from their day-in-Tahiti media selection will surely pump lots of blue light into their eyes at the proper vertical illuminance (ummm….because its ALL vertical illuminanceso take that, WELL Building Standard!!!). And in the evenings, that gorgeous Tahitian sunset will naturally produce warmer spectral output to match proper melanopic response – not to mention it looks an awful lot nicer than beige fabric walls covered with Post-It notes and Dilbert calendars.

Now that’s what I call melanopic response!

Perspective or “parallax” effects from your peripheral vision on the side displays will be challenging – but live rendering technologies are quickly opening opportunities for synthetic content — i.e., that “day in Paris” might be a cheap stock model rendered from Unreal Engine, not actually a piece of video content shot in real-life Paris. Hey, if its good enough for ILM, its good enough for your cubicle farm. And perhaps the “interface” is merely a cheap webcam-based gaze-tracking solution – to follow what you’re looking at and what your eyes linger on. Heck, even something as sophisticated as gaze tracking is now possible with free open source software driven on a cheap Raspberry Pi.

Naysayers will point out that LCD is fundamentally subtractive technology and therefore hugely energy inefficient – I counter that micro-LED technology will replace LCDs within a few years and efficacy & spectral output will dramatically improve. Again, the accelerating rate of technology change is hard to comprehend.

Yet a huge problem is the ecological damage from the mountains of e-waste. Architectural lighting can be readily simplified down to a truly eco-neutral design. Perhaps – just perhaps – microLEDs will combine with healthy, dissolvable electronic traces on bioderived/biodegradable substrates. Native DC power infrastructure will eliminate power supplies and USB-C reduces connectors and wiring to a bare minimum. So there seems to be a path forward to dramatic reduction in ecological impact.

Here is a diagram summarizing the various design opportunities and challenges that we designers will face in this brave new world:

In “Six Disruptive Trends…” I explored how architects, interior designers & lighting designers all need to become a new type of experience designer. I don’t think the “Six Trends…” piece really hits home with most people – even professional designers – until they think of the implications at the scale of their own personal space. Do you want to work in a workstation that is one giant portal to the virtual world?

The team at ARC Magazine asked me to write a short piece considering what “wellness lighting” means in office environments. Here was my response:

There is a poetic aspect of light that nourishes our souls.

To quote Richard Kelly, light “…stimulates the body and spirit, quickens the appetite, awakens curiosity, sharpens the wit…”

We are not machines with operating manuals and prescriptive engineering conditions that can secure our “wellbeing.” We need lighting that both shapes our emotions and responds to our wishes, that drives our understanding and interpretation of the world around us. That is the essence of lighting for our wellbeing.

Lighting designers need to transition to experience designers. Design for human experience first, and the technical design of lighting – along with acoustics, ergonomics, UX, digital media, biorhythms and a variety of other specialties – readily follows.

— Brad Koerner, Feb/Mar 2019, ARC Magazine

So which technology is easier to achieve such a vision of “wellness” in a office environment: Traditional architectural lighting or a cubicle surrounded by a 12K digital surface?

Maybe more crucially: Which is now cheaper?

Wild huh? What do you think?

Brad Koerner

Editor, Lucept

VP Product Development & Innovation, Cima

Brad Koerner is an entrepreneurial project leader with a range of design, marketing and product management experience. Brad has spent 20+ years in the architectural lighting industry, creating award-winning architectural lighting projects as well as developing new LED lighting products and market categories that have earned in excess of $350m. Brad is an accomplished speaker and writer forecasting future trends in lighting design and technology.

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