Having the office round your neck could come to have an entirely new and a completely desirable meaning. High-tech corporations are well ahead with the technology for the rave new world. By Jeremy Myerson.
The high-tech office of the year 2000 will not only be portable - it could be a piece of jewellery you wear round your neck. The personal computer will adopt whatever form a designer or stylist wishes. So say two of the world's leading experts in industrial design futures, David Kelley and Bill Moggridge. And the technology to achieve it already exists.
High-tech corporations are advanced in their work on the next generation of computer products for "knowledge workers" - that select band of mobile professionals who now dictate the pace of change in office technology. David Kelley, who styles himself "a typical knowledge worker", describes how he and his peers already work not in one office but in several. Soon the office workstation will be liberated from a fixed place. It will shrink, transmute, attach itself to the individual as a customised accessory, taking whatever shape and colour the knowledge workers wants to be seen with. The office will be inside the computer rather than the computer inside the office; actual locations could become little more than plug-in stations, each office accommodating 20 or 30 miniaturised computers.
"The desktop computer as we currently think if it will be dead," proclaims Bill Moggridge. "You will take your office support material with you wherever you go, or you will feel disconnected. And the personalisation of the portable workstation won't just be cosmetic in terms of style and colour. You will also be able to personalise the function - type into it, dictate using voice recognition, or sketch with a pen."
Kelley and Moggridge are designers, educationalists and directors of IDEO, a consulting group formed exactly one year ago from three of the best known product design and engineering consultancies on the international scene. IDEO stands for Innovation, Design, Engineering and Organisation and is the largest consultancy of its type in the world. When Kelley, Moggridge and a third product design specialist, Mike Nuttall, decided to join forces, the impact in the small, intimate world of product development was likened in some quarters to Sainsbury's, Tesco and Safeway going into business together. IDEO's client list reads like a high-tech Who's Who: Apple, Xerox, Motorola, NEC, Hewlett-Packard and Steelcase are just some of the names on the list.
Not surprisingly, all three founders of IDEO are closely associated with the techno-futurism of California's Silicon Valley, though both Moggridge and Nuttall are British and only made the move to the West Coast in the late 1970s. Says David Kelley, best known for developing the famous Apple mouse: "In California, we interpret the technology in its early stage. Later the innovation goes all around the world and becomes less expensive. Just as office computers are slimming down in size they will slim down in price." David Kelley's vision of an infinitely portable and transmutable computing world is declared in the context of a had-edged engineering background which included stints at NCR and Boeing.
Kelley combines consultancy with a professorship in design engineering at Stanford University. "Basically I have two full-time jobs," he remarks. "It's unusual for a non-academic to be tenured. I find the education process constantly feeds me with new ideas."
It hasn't been lost on Kelley and his colleagues that for all the exciting new freedoms of technology, high-tech office products have long been locked inside bland, anonymous boxes. Bill Moggridge says: "In the jargon of human factors, the big issue among manufacturers is now 'affordance' - use of design to tell people what to do with the machine." He explains: "This spells the end of the beige box. Greater design expressiveness is on its way." If the box is banished, the office equipment of all kinds replaced by thin, intelligent, integrated, flat-screen devices, the entire landscape of the office will undergo a conceptual sea-change in a way often described by workplace gurus as the cable-less office, the virtual office the office as club combining work and leisure, or the domesticated office.
Kelley and Moggridge suggest, however, that the office might not be as cable-free as one might think. "What will happen is that nothing in the room will be computer-like: the walls, for instance, will act as screens to display data," explains Moggridge. "Offices will become smaller and each worker will have access to several of them as they move freely around the organisation, computing power at their fingertips. People won't sit and work at desks. People will be badged with a system of locating sensors so that their files and phone calls will automatically be put into whatever room they happen to be."
At the heart of all of IDEO's blue-sky predictions is convergence. Kelley and Moggridge preach it like a gospel - integration of industrial design and engineering, convergence of telecoms and computers. In both of these progress has been slow. But in eight years, by the time of the new millenium, computers will be as unbiquitous, inexpensive and throw-away as pen and paper, argues Kelley. "The most enabling technology currently around is video image compression," he goes on. "The number of pieces of information that make an image is extreme and a lot to put down a telephone wire. They've found a way to crush the data and put it down the wire. So a convergence of video, telecoms and computer technology will give us the multi-media integrated telephone."
Video image compression has already paved the way for video shops to beam first-run movies down your telephone line directly to your VCR. Kelley forecasts widespread use of the technology in offices. What else excites the IDEO team? Voice mail and virtual reality are high on the list. "There are lots of commercial virtual reality applications being discussed," observes Kelley. "The scientific ones which enable you to walk around molecules, the architectural ones which allow you to explore a building before it is built, the retail ones which enable the travel agent to send a client on a trip to Australia inside the visor."
In this, as in all other technological futures, the big problem is in convincing customers to adopt new ways of doing and seeing things. "In many cases the technology has been around for some time. The real effort has to go into marketing and sales, in refining and interpreting the technology for the consumer. That's where design plays such a strong role," says Bill Moggridge. IDEO's portfolio of new products includes Dancall mobile phones, the Gridlite laptop computer and the new Apple Macintosh Quadra 900 tower.
IDEO operates from London, and the US, with offices in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Chicago and Boston. The Japanese have also shown great interest. Kelley is aware of the trap of constantly leaning out on the leading edge: "Much of our work is of a relatively ordinary nature, products which are coming to market in two years." There are dangers too in an over-emphasis on the impact of new technology. "If you go into a public library in the year 2000, sure there will be electronic books on optical disks," says Kelley. "You'll be able to scroll through, select an image of an old sailing ship and walk through it in a multi-media, interactive experience. But there will also be lots of old books just like we know them now. Technology adds a new dimension - it doesn't replace. Remember the paperless office? Computers have produced more paper, not less."