Futuristic furniture

Design students create a gesture-controlled workstation, sensory furniture and a form of office escape pod in their senior research studio.

By Jennifer Allford


Imagine a work space that can change form with a simple gesture to suit someone with Parkinson’s disease. Or a chair covered in plastic hair and sensors that will fold around an autistic user, shielding them from sensory overload. Or climbing into your own private pod to escape the office and tune in to a projection, some music or nothing at all.

The three startling prototypes were designed and built by master of architecture students in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary in their semester-long senior research studio.“There was an agenda to design for someone who is not yourself,” says Barry Wylant, associate professor in EVDS and industrial designer. His students also had to incorporate emerging technologies and address one of four critical theories — different ideas around changing society.

“It’s been an intense process,” says Wylant. “There was a significant investigation into users, into the critical theories as well as into the emerging technologies that we can use and how they affect the way people interact with the pieces.” 

He was thrilled with the results:

A desk you create with a gesture

SWARM blends Italian Futurism, a critical art theory celebrating the machine, with sensors and artificial intelligence technology to create a flexible work space for someone with Parkinson’s disease, providing privacy when they need it. “It’s essentially a swarm of 8-by-8 by 48-inch-long bricks that are controlled through gesture sensors,” says Eric Free, who built Swarm with Jubril Idowu, Alex Raymundo, and Xumin Wang. “You can summon the blocks with a gesture and move them to make space, whether a desk or a meeting space or a chair. It’s a very technologically expressive work station that can accommodate all kinds of different ways that work happens.”


Mobi, seating that cocoons you
Mobi, seating that cocoons you

Seating that cocoons you

Mobi, a flexible white surface that also builds off the ideas of Italian Futurism, was conceived for someone on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder who may have sensory issues and social anxiety. Sensors are embedded in the structure’s hair. “In order to change the position or make a seat, you swipe the hairs and it will read your response,” says Brady Horner, who made Mobi with Jayde King, Madeleine Chu and Anne Gorsalitz. Although it was designed form people with sensory issues, Mobi may also appeal to those in open office environments. “Open offices can be unpleasant because it’s loud and people are constantly bugging you,” says Horner. “Mobi has the ability to adapt to the situation to close you off and cocoon you.”  


POD offers an escape for office workers.
POD offers an escape for office workers.

Climb into the POD to escape

The POD, for Perruque on Demand, is a private space placed sporadically through Plus 15s for office workers to climb in and “take back moments of the work day” for their own personal gain. That idea of reclaiming the workday — “perruque,” the French word for wig — is expressed in French intellectual Michel de Certeau’s critical theory.

“Inside there are LEDs and a projection system so you’re getting that experience of sound and light that encompasses the entire interior of the POD, immersing yourself in the experience of your smartphone,” says Charlea Greig who created the POD with Cass Milford, Stephanie Karpuk and Noah Jarvis.  “You have flexibility in choosing what you want to do or relax or re-centre yourself away from the everyday office environment.”

As well as building the prototypes, students developed a “persona” to use the piece, a short film, mood boards and design brief. “In a big chunk of our world, our relationship to technology and the compromises we make to use it become brushed under the carpet,” says Wylant. “If we are making a hunk of technology what’s the real relationship with people who are using it, good or bad. And with most pieces of technology, it’s both.”

This Senior Research Studio is possible though support of Teknion and McCrum’s Office Furnishings.



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