Visitors to Greg Welch’s office might pause in the doorway and stare — and rightly so. Welch, a researcher in human-machine interaction at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sits in front of a computer display that’s 4,000 pixels wide — more than three times the width of a 17-inch monitor. The display wraps around Welch, allowing him to see many documents at once.
The huge, hypnotizing screen is among several ideas Welch has for the ever-evolving office of the future. For another, ask to look at some of his numbers or a chart — and he’ll project them on a wall or floor, a precursor to showing them in 3-D for virtual meetings. Both technologies may seem far away, but Welch says they could hit the market in as little as five years.
Welch is just one of many scientists at universities and government labs — and at companies such as IBM, Microsoft, and even office-furniture maker Steelcase — whose work is changing the office environment. They’re developing desk chairs that will sense when you’re stressed and, perhaps, tell your boss to offload some of your work; PCs that can figure out during your senior moments where you’ve seen a particular name; and desktops that, with a push of a button, transform themselves into computer monitors to help facilitate discussion during a roundtable meeting.
All of these ideas have one goal in common: To raise white-collar productivity — or at least preserve the huge gains of recent years while avoiding employee burnout.