by Brian Patrick CTS-D, Principal Consultant, The Sextant Group

For several years, the only candy my daughter would eat was a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Even after Halloween trick-or-treating, she gave all of her loot to her brothers – except for those coveted cups. But as I write this article, there are still several unopened in my refrigerator. Why? Because her tastes have changed. And I wonder… how often do our clients’ tastes change?

Active learning classrooms and their corporate “Huddle Room” counterparts routinely use common audiovisual and IT technologies to mediate group work, and now must address trends like bring your own device (BYOD). Flexibility and adaptability of space and furniture are often heralded as essential elements. Bringing useful technologies and great furniture into a comfortable space is a recipe for successful collaboration, idea-sharing, and productive creativity. Predicting technology life-cycles and interpreting trends in digital connectivity, networking, and interactive solutions will greatly influence the long-term success of the spaces and systems you design.

“You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”
“You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!”

A good client friend of mine described how his organization likes to adopt technology: “We’d rather be settlers than pioneers.” Today’s students and young workers are the children of those settlers, yet they are more advanced than the original pioneers. They
were not only raised with personal mobile technologies but expect a constant refreshment and evolution of it. Smartphones are replaced every two years at the most, and access to the Internet and media-rich information is expected to be always available. Likewise, audiovisual and information technologies have life cycles measured in two to five years at the most. How then, do we plan environments where facilities are expected to last many decades and furniture should last until it begins to wear, delaminate, and beg for replacement?

It requires experience with current technology, understanding expectations of the traditional age student and the young workforce, and a dedication to following important trends – envisioning applications for adaptable solutions in flexible environments. When considering solutions that join computer and display technology with furniture offerings, we are often asked: is this a significant trend, or only an ephemeral solution that’s trendy?

What’s Old is New Again

Furniture that houses technology is not a contemporary innovation. In the late 1980’s, manufacturers were producing tables that recessed the bulky CRT computer monitors under the desk surface. This was primarily in response to rows of desks being transformed into rows of desks with giant computers and monitors.

Convincing sketches detailed superior ergonomic features for computer users. This was preferable for many, given desktop and square footage limitations, and even gained some popularity in the workplace in an office desk variety. But once LCD monitors started to take over market share from CRTs in the 90’s, these desks became obsolete or had to be retrofitted. Most often this feature was abandoned. LCD monitors sat on the tabletop, and users were left with a less-impressive glass-bottom boat equivalent of a computer desk.

Fast forward, and furniture vendors are still inventing. The ubiquitous desktop monitor is a thin LCD or LED device. A modern version of this desk mounts the display on a motorized lift, raising it when in use and recessing it flush under the table when not in use.

At a recent conference, an educator informed me that all of these high-tech desks in their 2-year-old computer lab could not accommodate the newly refreshed computer systems. It seems the new LCD monitors were too big to fit through the openings equipped in the built-in lift mechanism. Perhaps the unit had a larger screen, incorporated a power supply, or was an increasingly popular all-in-one PC. Either way, that nice, pricey motorized lift feature was abandoned and the desks went from state-of-the-art to obsolete in a single PC’s life-cycle.

In the technology world, it’s not about what came first: the chicken or the egg; rather, what gets replaced first: the technology or what surrounds it. If it’s not obvious, a properly designed environment should outlast multiple generations of technology refreshment cycles.

The transition from analog display signals (VGA) to digital signals in the world of laptops and tablets is almost complete. The ubiquitous 15-pin VGA, our favorite computer output, has been around since 1987. Industry heavy hitters Intel, AMD, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, and LG Electronics announced they will no longer produce products with analog VGA connectivity by 2015. If we accept a 5-year generational cycle for audiovisual products, VGA will exit after an unusually long life as a great-great-great grandparent of its digital progeny: HDMI, Display Port, and other incubating interfaces still in the womb.

The more inventive furniture providers have created novel solutions that marry technologies used for collaboration with their learning space solutions. But these are not keeping pace with the evolution of video technology, and one size does not fit all. More significantly, the new frontier of business collaboration and active learning involves a new disruptive, transformational mechanism: Interactivity.

Enter Interactivity

One of the largest global display manufacturers recently announced all of their professional flat panel plasmas from 65” to 103” will include multi-touch capability at no additional charge. This is not a gimmick; the flat panel landscape is saturated and price-driven. Rather, this indicates the rising demand for interactive capability among corporate, education, and institutional customers.

Visual displays communicate the common language of images, renderings, and models of many types. Adding interactive technology such as touch, gesture, white-boarding, annotation, remote communications, and document sharing opens up another world of powerful collaboration. For example, two engineers whose first languages are not the same can gesture to drawings and images and communicate effectively while speaking very little. The Application Programming Interfaces (API) of Microsoft Windows 7 and 8, as well as Apple OS X, have extended the development of interactivity into the mainstream.

Applications for truly enhanced learning and corporate teamwork have emerged from the nascent realm of vaporware. Collaboration desks, where the interactive display is the table top surface, are popular among designers who work with drawings, images, and digital representations of facilities. These tables are also very useful for sorting through large quantities of photos and sketches. The centerpiece and focal point of this solution is not the table, but the interactive display. These digital collaboration tables can easily support up to 32 multi-touch points (or 32 fingers) using one to four displays at a time. Suffice it to say, many users can interact at the same time.

Often, peninsula-style furniture is mated to large displays dispersed around the perimeter of a room. This minimizes floor space, simplifies cable management and eliminates the need for floor boxes. However, if an interactive display is permanently mounted at the end of a large table, its multi-touch functionality cannot be fully utilized by the collaboration group. Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” By incorporating multi-touch, flat panel manufacturers support the evolution of group collaboration and active learning, but the furniture and space must allow physical access to the display. When participants are inspired to manipulate visual data, everyone contributes and another roadblock to engagement is removed.

A shared interactive display can be a powerful workflow enabler. This is especially important in the next sea-level change that institutions of learning are experiencing: the move from a degree based on a single area of study under one educational department to a cross-discipline education that develops the skills, language, and experience needed to synthesize multidiscipline solutions. Massive lecture halls are giving way to the creation of group collaboration rooms. Graduates are better prepared for the workforce: After all, how many jobs do not require multiple people working toward a common goal or solution?

Fixing What Isn’t Broken

Some of our projects implement iPads or tablets into the new facility audiovisual systems, directly acknowledging their convenient portability for sharing information. Professors encourage students to bring topical research to class daily, with the tablet PC as the digital slate for academic show-and-tell. In other words, don’t just go home and read the assignment to prepare for class, but do your own research and bring back something compelling to share that none of us have ever seen. With the right space and systems, this info can be passed around and flashed up to any display in the room. Conversely, I’ve also seen sleek-looking furniture solutions that mount iPads into tables like placemats for individual consumption. Why in the world would someone anchor such a powerful, mobile, sharable device into a desk? Let the tablets be free!

A Chocolate-meets-Peanut Butter accident can be a brilliant discovery. History is full of major innovations and unexpected successes that are a result of such accidents or experiments. But chocolate (or peanut butter) can create so many more varied, amazing, and impactful concoctions without being tied to the other.

One of my favorite things about living at the forefront of technology is the excitement of new and constantly evolving tools, envisioning applications, and understanding trends. It’s not uncommon for me to be both amazed and bewildered by new high-tech equipment and applications. The available permutations of visual display and collaboration technologies, furniture solutions, and space planning options are staggering. Creating successful combinations for current and future users is a complex design problem and a debate that is never over.

Time has passed and my daughter doesn’t like Reese’s Cups anymore. She’s moved on to something else – her tastes have changed. Likewise, there is no single best solution that unites collaboration technology, space planning, pedagogy, and furniture. We often hear of “disruptive technologies,” but we’ve yet to coin the phrase “disruptive furniture.” Two great tastes may taste great together today… but will they five years from now?

My good friends own a very popular all-natural frozen yogurt shop just down the street. As I write this, they are donating 100% of today’s profits to aid in the cost of a prosthetic leg for a young girl injured in the Boston Marathon attacks. So I’m packing up the kids to help a good cause and enjoy a great treat at the same time. Just to sweeten things, I think I’ll top off my yogurt with pieces of my favorite candy bar, Butterfinger. Then again, there are so many great healthy and decadent toppings to choose from. Maybe I’ll try something different – dare I say better – this time. And that reminds me: sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.

About the Author
Brian Patrick CTS-D was a principal for The Sextant Group and used to head up the firm’s Southeastern Regional Office in Atlanta.