Dr. Howard Shrobe, a principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has an office that looks normal but doesn't act like it. His lights and drapes are on voice control, he uses a white board that digitizes what's written on it, and his building is equipped with wireless location devices that can tell him where he is at any given time. It's all part of MIT's Project Oxygen (http://oxygen.lcs.mit.edu), a program working on pervasive computing.
Don't expect the office of the future to look like an episode of The Jetsons. "Our philosophy is to make it as natural as you can with as few gimmicks," says Shrobe. The main goal of tomorrow's office is to help workers capture and organize information more easily and efficiently.
Charlie Forslund and Joel Stanfield, research engineers with work space environment company Steelcase, collaborated with IBM on BlueSpace (www.research.ibm.com/bluespace), a prototype office of the future project. Forslund describes it as a "concept car." Two particularly innovative features, he says, are an "EverywhereDisplay" that projects images onto any surface in the office and a monitor rail that allows LCD screens to be moved around to allow for easy meetings and collaboration with co-workers.
A hallmark of both Project Oxygen and BlueSpace is the worker's ability to easily control the environment, from lighting to temperature. In BlueSpace, for example, a display called InfoPanel puts those items at users' fingertips and also allows them to communicate their location, calendar, projects and privacy needs to co-workers.
If you're curious as to when these technologies will make it into your business, look forward to a slow infiltration. Stanfield sees advances like full-spectrum LED task lighting, which creates a more natural lighting environment, showing up in regular offices within the next few years. Ultimately, the focus is not on gadgets, but on production, privacy and personalization for office workers. Beyond that, you'll just have to wait for the future to find out what your office will look and act like.