Office of the future: comfy chairs and tablets everywhere

3 Jul 2014

What will the office of the future look like? Samsung has tried to answer that with a recent event showcasing the future of work – and it would appear that next-gen offices will be heavy on Samsung tablets and panel displays.

The first bit of tech on display was pre-event: before I entered the main showcase, a Samsung staffer excitedly asked for the NFC-enabled name tag I’d just been handed. She swiped it on a small device, waited a minute, and swiped again. Then she fiddled with the printer next to her, and swiped the card again, and 30 seconds later a coat-check tag printed out.

It was supposed to have my name on it, but something didn't go right, so I was reduced to simply a number. With a name, such a system would have made some sense: if I had lost my check tag, they could have searched their system for my name.

All the same, the whole process took minutes longer than simply tearing off a preprinted tag and writing my name on it, or me simply snapping a photo of the tag on my phone -- my usual tactic. On top of which, I didn't actually have a coat to check.

It was an experience that sums up so many of these showcase events for me: we've got cool technology, but it’s not always solving a problem anyone has in the real world.

We've got cool technology, but it’s not always solving a problem anyone has in the real world

Having failed to check any items, I carried on to the rooms where the event was held. At the door, I was pushed by staff to swipe my name tag on a massive machine, which had a tiny screen displaying a personalised welcome message. I didn't feel particularly welcome until a human spoke to me, however, and using NFC to swipe into buildings is hardly cutting edge -- it's been used for ticketing on buses for more than a decade, and buses tend not to be at the forefront of innovation.

Samsung has better ideas than digital hellos, of course, and it’s easier to see where some of these could be genuinely useful. The most intriguing was pairing an ID card with a smartphone for authentication – you need both to get through a secure door, for example, so no-one can simply nick your card for access.

What's more, when a card is used to access a corporation’s headquarters, it switches your phone automatically into work-only mode, using Samsung’s work-play profile division Knox. That could enable security features such as disabling the camera or restricting email access -- to ensure you can’t, for example, snap photos of the next Galaxy S smartphone and send them to competitors (or, say, press).

Samsung also showed off a VMware-based system for mirroring data from your PC to your tablet or smartphone. Well, Samsung tried to show it off, but the demonstrator couldn’t get the login to work. Living in the future is fiddly. The idea is promising, however: none of your devices – not your desktop PC, nor your tablet or phone – actually holds your data and documents, which are instead streamed from the cloud. So if a device goes walkabout, there’s no panic that your corporate data has gone with it.

This makes it easier for staff to work on the go – outside the office, as well as inside. Samsung wasn’t pushing hotdesking so much as breakout areas and quiet places to sit on your own: picture (or, uh, look below) a comfy chair with a built in desk for your laptop, and a display that normally shows company notices but which can be taken over by your device and used as a secondary screen.

Samsung also wants us to work together, offering tools to help employees collaborate. That word – collaborate – is a bit of a tech buzzword right now, but in Samsung’s office of the future it translates to letting people talk to each other a bit more easily, and making it easier to fiddle with each other’s work.

Aside from ridiculously comfortable chairs, the key to this is having tablets – apparently laptops are too heavy and get in the way of chatting – and meeting rooms with big displays that all interact. The example meeting room was set up to let staff use their own tablets for chatting over VoIP, making it easier to go face-to-face with remote workers. It also offered a large display that multiple tablets could interact with, so participants could make notes in real-time on a colleague's PowerPoint presentation, for example. (I can tell you how that would go in the PC Pro offices: there’d be filthy doodles all over the slides, and giggling from everyone in the room.)

The other key to all of this is easy connectivity: forget fiddling with cables, everything should connect automatically, possibly authenticated via a swipe of an NFC device.

All in, the coolest technology on show was Samsung’s vision of a financial trader’s desk (pictured at the top). Forget the multiple displays and voice search tools – surely these things are in traders’ offices already? – but the desk itself shifts to different heights at the push of a button, letting you sit, stand, and even lounge in a lazy way while still keeping your keyboard in reach.

That’s an innovation that’d come in handy in real offices.

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