Behold the awesome office of the future

From shape-shifting furniture to holographic displays, the workplace of the future promises more than just another day at the office

The office of the future
The office of the future

The workplace environment known as “the office” has gone through a good deal of change over the years. Consider the timeline of props: Typewriters. Switchboards. File cabinets. Mimeographs. Desktop computers. Fax machines. Cubicles. Exercise desks. Nap stations. The coffee maker seems to have endured. And, of course, the stapler.

What does the future hold for this workplace archetype where so many of us spend our days? Here we look at some of the emerging technology likely to inform the future of your office (and your commute). It's a select sampling, looking for the fun stuff and peeking in on current fashion-forward design ideas, as well as far-out concepts still years down the line. We'll stay away from the issue of artificial intelligence, which is a whole 'nother story.

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It's a table! It's a room! It's Superdesk!
Credit: Clive Wilkinson Architects
It's a table! It's a room! It's Superdesk!

From medieval scholars to contemporary middle management, the desk has long been the anchor of the workplace environment. Recent years have brought developments like the standing desk, the workout desk, and the odd modern phenomenon known as hot desking. But over in New York City, one company has put the office desk into fast-forward evolution mode.

Designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects, the undulating Superdesk is a 4,400-square-foot shared worktop that weaves throughout the entire office of marketing firm The Barbarian Group. A physical expression of the company's collaborative approach, the Superdesk can accommodate up to 170 workers as it morphs between standard desktop surfaces, larger conference tables, and acoustically private meeting spaces beneath its arches.

Meanwhile, over at Texas A&M, designers are working on hybrid IoT smart desks that will tell you when to stand, sit, and quit for the day.

TRANSFORM as Adaptive and Dynamic Furniture
Shape-shifting furniture that anticipates your needs

If you're genuinely interested in glimpsing the future of the modern workplace, MIT's Tangible Media Group lab is one of the places you want to keep an eye on. Led by professor Hiroshi Ishii, the research hub focuses on the actual, physical applications of the digital age. Specifically, the lab is dedicated to the TUI (tangible user interface) – rather than the GUI (graphical user interface) – with the goal of creating physical objects and surfaces that engage directly with digital data.

Among the lab's recent projects is the Haptic Edge Display for phones and mobile devices, which deploys tactile pixels – aka taxels – on the side of your handheld display. The group also specializes in shapeshifting objects for the office environment. The ongoing Transform initiative imagines future “adaptive furniture” that morphs in anticipation of your needs. As you approach your desk, for instance, your workstation will erect an on-the-fly support structure for your laptop or even a customized lower-back support module in your chair. Check out the intriguing demo video above for more details.

Transformable Meeting Space
Drop-down cubicles provide instant cone of silence

Veterans of pop culture ephemera may remember the Cone of Silence, the highly dubious privacy technology featured in the 1960s spy satire "Get Smart." When special agent Maxwell Smart needed to have a private conversion, the Cone of Silence – plastic, transparent, and utterly useless – descended from above to further complicate communication. That show really holds up, actually.

Oddly enough, Google and MIT recently partnered on a kind of 21st-century Cone of Silence called the Transformable Meeting Space. It's an admirably low-tech solution: When you need to have a quick but private conversation in an open-plan office, you simply pull an overhead counterweight and a 10-foot-wide circular enclosure drops from the ceiling. It's not transparent – in fact, the retractable fiberglass shell looks a little predatory as it descends – but it is a cheap and simple way to summon an instant private meeting space when needed.

Flat-screen displays replaced by freestanding holograms
Credit: YouTube.com
Flat-screen displays replaced by freestanding holograms

As evidenced by pretty much every science fiction movie in the past 20 years, the future of display technology will involve interactive holograms that respond instantly to word and gesture. On the silver screen, these freestanding holograms look like 2D high-definition flat screens cubed out into razor-sharp 3D glory, conjured from thin air.

Alas, such freestanding holograms are still on the fiction end of science fiction. But some recent developments suggest we're getting close to achieving such technology in the workplace. In late 2015, a consortium of 16 Korean companies provided video evidence of a tabletop holographic display that can be viewed from all directions. In January 2017, researchers at the Australian National University unveiled a potential hologram system that projects light through tiny nanopillars 500 times thinner than a human hair.

The Australian project hasn't produced a hologram yet, but it may be the real breakthrough. By manipulating light on the nano scale, the system can handle the colossal amounts of data required for real freestanding holograms. Oh, Elon Musk is on the case, as well.

Wearable office bots crawl over your clothes
Credit: YouTube.com
Wearable office bots crawl over your clothes

Plenty of 21st-century grinders have incorporated wearables into their workday: smart watches, activity trackers. But for those who want to really get serious, consider this decidedly creepy development from last year's ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium (UIST) in Tokyo.

Rovables are small autonomous helper robots designed to attach to your clothing and roam around as you go about your day. By way of magnetic wheels – one cylindrical wheel actually on the inside of your clothes – the bots can climb all over without damaging the fabric. Networked into your smartphone, the little fellers could function as basic fitness trackers or literally tap you on the shoulder when an important email comes in. Down the line, they might assemble themselves into a modular electronic display on your sleeve.

The prototype bots are a bit clunky for now, but the designers hope to eventually get Rovables down to the size of a fingernail. If it all seems a bit creepy-crawly – well, it is. Entomophobes will want to avoid the prototype demonstration video (above).

Folding smartphones unfurl into tablets
Credit: Lenovo
Folding smartphones unfurl into tablets

All indications suggest that bendy, foldout smartphones are the Next Big Thing coming out of the R&D departments of major manufacturers – maybe as soon as this year. So consider this a near-future prediction: Your work-related mobile devices are about to get a lot more flexible ... literally.

Rumors continue to percolate in Korea that Samsung will debut two new Galaxy smartphones this year with bendable displays, one of which features a wraparound screen that unfolds into a 7-inch tablet. Other companies are also working toward this fold-out design – Lenovo's prototype is pictured here. The idea is that the screen basically covers both the front and the back of the phone as you hold it in the closed position. Open the phone like a face-down book and the wraparound display doubles in size into a tablet screen.

The same technology could also power smartphones that curl around your wrist like a slap bracelet or fold over multiple times like a map. We've come rather a long way with workplace phones, haven't we?

Driverless cars shift into mobile offices during commute
Credit: Volkswagen
Driverless cars shift into mobile offices during commute

As you may be aware, massive amounts of money and brainpower are currently being poured into the development of autonomous vehicles. Most of the effort is focused on those critical elements like navigation, infrastructure, and you know, not killing us all. But several automakers and other companies are planning ahead by designing autonomous vehicles that can morph into mobile offices for a more productive commute.

For instance, at this year's Detroit Auto Show, Volkswagen unveiled the ID Buzz concept vehicle – a reinvention of the classic microbus with an autonomous driving mode that assumes a future of truly driverless commuting. Flip the van over to ID Pilot mode, and the front seats turn around 180 degrees, then slide toward the rear as modular tables as desks pop up from the floor. This is one of many fast-forward mobile office concepts in development, some of which go full-on sci-fi.

Microsoft, rather predictably, is also making plans for this new office environment. The venerable software company is already partnering with automakers to design a mobile office operating system for when you're itching to mine spreadsheets at 45mph.

Urban commuters have new ways to roll into the office
Urban commuters have new ways to roll into the office

For those who don't drive to work, the future will offer even crazier commuter options. In fact, for some city workers, the future is now. One of the few genuine success stories to emerge from the whole hoverboard thing is the Onewheel, an electric rideable that's not a hoverboard at all. By employing a radically new design, the Onewheel has found an enthusiastic fanbase among skaters, surfers, and – rather surprisingly – urban commuters.

The Onewheel has become a viable option for more adventurous commuters who might otherwise walk or bike at least part of the way to work. With a range of up to seven miles and a top speed of 19mph, it can go anywhere a city bike can, and general consensus is that the device is really fun to ride. As such, the company behind the Onewheel has found an accidental market among young urban types who appreciate a more action-packed commute.

Those interested in really rethinking their future office commute might consider pairing the Onewheel with the Gita, an upcoming porter robot from the Italian company that first brought us the Vespa scooter. A kind of space-age suitcase on wheels, the Gita follows you around the city carrying up to 40 pounds of your stuff.

Inverted skyscrapers redefine the office building
Credit: Horizon
Inverted skyscrapers redefine the office building

When it comes to reckless conjecture, it never hurts to think big. So what about the future of the office building itself? Well, a gang of mischievous architects in New York City has a plan to turn the very concept of the skyscraper upside down.

Winner of the 2016 eVolo Skyscraper Competition, the New York Horizon project proposes digging out an inverted megastructure in the heart of New York City. Rather than build up into the sky, the architects envision dropping Central Park 100 feet into the ground, then turning the surrounding “cliffs” into the front-facing windows of thousands of underground offices. Oh, it's a trip, man. Designers estimate that the inverted antibuilding would actually create around seven square miles of new residential and commercial real estate.

They've thought this thing through, too. Rock and soil from the excavated 1.3-square-mile trench would be used for building projects in other neighborhoods. The cliffs – now banks of windows – would be surfaced with reflective glass, generating an infinite mirror illusion for everyone in the new Central Park. Note for next year's office party: Keep the architects away from the absinthe.