It has been estimated that the average person spends half of his waking life sitting. Eighty per cent of the world’s population suffers from back problems of different types and varying seriousness. The bulk of these are lower back pains, aggravated by bad seating. Sitting is not exactly an ideal position for the body to rest (some scientists are of the view, that 20,000 bits of data would be necessary to calculate the factors that constitute a comfortable seating arrangement). No wonder, the ideal chair is usually a bed and that any thing else is only some kind of a compromise. Hence, the need for a systematic study of sitting that rather important activity especially its relationship to muscular and other allied problems.
The study of man’s physical, psychological and anatomical relationship to his work environment is known as ‘Ergonomics’. It began originally as a military project work during the World War II, when special seating arrangements had to be created for Army aircraft and for women on the factory assembly lines whose efficiency suffered when they were forced to sit on uncomfortable backless stools. It was noticed that a simple addition of backs to their seats resulted in increase of productivity by about 32 per cent.
In the last few years this highly specialised science has become the latest fashion in a industrial design. It has assumed increasing importance and relevance, particularly considering that the office of the future may present “ergonomists” with new challenges. With robots taking over assembly lines and more people operating computer consoles form a seating position, the automated office will require seating specifically designed for prolonged stationary period of high concentration.
A three-year 1.25 million dollar research project undertaken by two international corporations, one based in the United States and another in Denmark, has resulted in the creation of the ultimate office chair which is one of the latest examples of human-engineered or ergonomic technology.
What is so special about this chair which is being regarded as the last word in office chairs? Most chairs are designed only from a three-dimensional spatial point of view. But in designing this chair, the fourth dimension “time” has also been included. An active hydraulic cylinder system concealed in the seat constantly hits the chair through an angle of four degrees at the rate of one degree per minute. In other words, the chair functions like a Robotic rocking chair. The designers have taken note of the fact that a human body had not been designed to sit still. So they used technology once again to restore the natural tendency for motion that our increasingly technological society had taken away.
The chair can be adjusted to individual idiosyncrasies. A Light Emitting Decode (LED) panel in its arm displays setting for seat angle, back height, and other dimensions.
When comfort rather than beauty is the criterion, designing a chair is a difficult job. Hence scientist have taken over where architects left off in trying to design the ultimate chair.
In Europe, Government standards have already been established for ergonomic office seating. Very big companies have begun to think in terms of better seating arrangements for their computer equipment as their workers are already beginning to complain.
However, all chairs are not designed with productivity in mind. The former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt had a special type of wooden chair which was so designed as to take the load of his feet while he was shaking hands with other heads of the State. Similarly, President Kennedy’s Orthopaedist started a new trend in rocking chairs by prescribing him one to enable him to ease his aching back.
One famous pianist sat on a sawed-off chair instead of a piano bench. Chess champion Bobby Fisher insisted on sitting on a particular type of chair during his world championship game against Russian Grand master Boris Spassky. It would appear that logically the next step would be that like shoes, chairs should have the proper fit for their individual purpose.
All over the world there is evidence to show that there are innovations in technology to design new types of chairs to suit the human shape. Thus, for example, the Bodysonic chair developed in Japan recently is a musical chair. It has a built-in sound system that literally plays the music through the body using “bone conduction” to enhance bass reception. The Bodysonic system is available in chairs, office chairs, bar stools or simply cushions. An architect in Chicago has designed what he describes as a wearable chair. It is a minimal seating concept, that consists simply of a pair of jointed leg braces that are strapped to the calf. The ultraportable chair allows people to run or sit down. But, it also has a more serious application as an orthotic device for arthritis victims. One amateur astronomer in Kenmore, New York has designed a chair that is actually a miniature observatory. The stargazer’s chair has a built-in telescope, a cushioned head-rest and a foot-controlled azimuth tester so that he can scan the skies in complete comfort without ever rising form his seat. Similarly, a hightech birthing chair, manufactured by a company in Nebraska, United States allows pregnant women to do what their counterparts in more primitive societies have done all along i.e. deliver the baby from an upright portion rather than a supine position. In earlier times the trosseaus of wealthy ladies often included jewelled birthing stolls providing their owners with a gravity assist for their labours. The modern streamlined Nebraska version, is made of high impact plastic. Another innovation is a special chair designed by physiotherapists in Norway. They have determined that the healthiest way to sit is on your knees. The result of their research is a series of kneeling balance chairs, marketed by a firm in Chicago.
In order to enable one to perceive what a seater is sitting on, two scientists of Tel Aviv University in Israel have developed a chair equipped with two thousand optical sensors that provide a video display of every sitting contact from shoulder to heel. The chair was essentially designed to provide visual feedback for physiotherapy which until now has mostly relied on guess work to reteach people how to use debilitated muscles. It may also prove to be the ultimate tool in designing all types of future seating from pilots’ ejector seats to dentists’ chairs. However, it must be admitted that the optical chair has just one significant drawback or blind spot. It will not be able to measure psychological comfort. Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of the modern rocking chair said that “to the discontended man no chair is easy”.