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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

A Robot Chair Makes You Sit Up Straight

After suffering back problems, a professor taught his chair to correct his posture.

  • September 29, 2010

John Morrell is your typical professor of mechanical engineering. He puts in long hours at his desk, slouched in front of a computer, gradually killing the spongey intervertebral discs in that keep the spine flexible. Even after he went to a physical therapist for back pain, he couldn’t remember to sit up straight in his chair, he told the Yale Daily News.

Being an engineer, he eventually came around to the notion that it would be easier to change his environment than to change himself. So, along with his student Ying Zheng, he wired up an Aeron chair (street value: $850) with $70 worth of electronics, including six “force-sensitive resistors, or tactors.”

The chair’s operation is straightforward: if you deviate from an upright stance in which your spine is in the neutral position, as recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, whatever pressure-sensitive sensor you aren’t leaning on starts to vibrate insistently.

If this sounds like, as the blog TechYum put it “robot Sister Mary Katherine SitUpStraight, complete with vibrating ruler,” then perhaps you haven’t quite got the right idea. The chair is meant to enhance your brief time on this earth, not turn your working hours into a Kafkaesque nightmare of unpredictable negative feedback.

“We are presently working on ways to make the chair less bitchy and more like a trusted yoga coach,” Morrell told FastCoDesign, and no I am not making that up. “Good posture at the expense of productivity or happiness is not where we want to stop.”

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