[Update: Dr. Morrell writes with the following: "We are presently working on ways to make the chair less bitchy and more like a trusted yoga coach. Good posture at the expense of productivity or happiness is not where we want to stop. We'll keep you posted." Looking forward to it, Professor!?Ed.]
Bad news for happy slouchers: Now, there's a chair that'll straighten you up, whether you like it or not.
Yale mechanical engineering professor John Morrell and grad student Ying Zheng geeked out one of Herman Miller's Aeron chairs, that symbol of corporate idleness everywhere, so that it buzzes whenever you slump. "The vibration is supposed to be an annoyance," Zheng told the Yale Daily News, the idea being that it's so irritating, you sit up like a rod. It's the wired equivalent of a scolding mother (and, if you aren't careful, it might make you take your elbows off the table, too).
The key is matchbook-sized cell phone vibrators called tactors that are embedded in the chair — two around the shoulders, one near the lower back, and one under each leg — and go off at the hint of deviant posture. From the Yale Daily News:
"When a person slouches, the tactor in the lumbar vibrates. When a person leans back, the two tactors in the shoulder region vibrate. When a person leans too forward, the whole back pulsates. When a person crosses his or her legs, lifts a leg or leans to one side, the tactors under the legs pulsate."
Good god, it sounds like it'll blow up if you breathe. Morrell was inspired after being diagnosed with tennis elbow, which he got spending too much time hunkered over a laptop. If Posture Feedback Chair ever goes into production — it's just a prototype at this point — it'll be customized to individual ailments (tennis elbow, lower back pain, whatever). Doctors or physical therapists will determine your ideal sitting position, then the tactors will be programmed to encourage it. Think of it as a sort of Adderall for acute slouchers.
It's no accident that Morrell, who's credited with co-inventing the Segway, chose to soup up the Aeron chair. The Aeron is the ultimate symbol of corporate luxury, hailed as it is (with some caveats) as a triumph of ergonomic design. But while the chair might make your heinie feel like it's floating on air, it won't outright fix one of the biggest problems vexing workplace drones, tremendously bad posture.
Skeptics might ask if a pesky prod can actually convince people to adjust their sitting position. We reckon so, for the same reason that electric jolts get rats to switch on lights and alarm clocks get humans to wake up at all sorts of ungodly hours: We'll do anything to make something unpleasant stop. And obviously, you wouldn't buy the chair unless you wanted to correct your posture in the first place.
We wonder, though: Could it be designed so that it rewards you for good behavior instead of discouraging bad behavior? B.F. Skinner, the high priest of operant conditioning, would be the first to tell you that positive reinforcement is the fastest way to get anyone or anything, down to a pea-brained pigeon, to do what you want. To that end, we imagine a chair that kicks into massage mode every time you sit up properly. If you play your cards right, a day at the office might be more like eight hours at the spa.