Robot Legs Are the New Standing Desk

Exoskeletons have people who couldn’t walk kicking soccer balls, but one Swiss company has much more modest aspirations—they’re taking the exoskeleton and disrupting the humble stool. Before workers are replaced by robots, there’s a chance they’ll start to resemble them.

Noonee has a pending patent on the “Chairless Chair,” which they describe as “wearable mechatronic technology based on research from the Bio-Inspired Robotics laboratory at ETH Zurich.” They’re essentially a powered set of exoskelton legs designed to help industry workers stand for long periods of time more comfortably.

Linda Seward at Robohub reports that exoskeleton legs are still in prototype, but there are plans for future Chairless Chairs to “understand” when the user wants the legs to go rigid, and when he or she wants them to be able to walk around, but for now, users are stuck pressing a button to get them to engage.

Standing desks are having a bit of a moment. And yet it’s not like anyone really wants to or should spend all day on their feet either. Having been associated with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, sitting all day at work is getting (hyperbolically) called “ the new smoking,” but standing has its own set of problems.

“Standing to work has long known to be problematic,” Alan Hedge, the director of human factors and ergonomics research and teaching program, told Time magazine in 2011. “It is more tiring, it dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy.”

Ideally, you could swap between sitting and standing at work, or just get up every 20 minutes or so to move around. Although really when you think about an “ideal situation,” why would you have to be at work for eight hours anyway, right? But Noonee is pitching the Chairless Chair to people in industry who have to stand in order to work.

Given that their jobs often involve performing the same task repetitively, people working in the industry sector risk developing musculoskeletal disorders. Of 215 million industry sector workers in the EU, a “staggering 85 million are reported to suffer from muscle-related disorders,” Noonee’s site says.

Exoskeletons allow people to do things that their bodies can’t do, and one, sort of dull, thing we can’t do, apparently, is comfortably and productively maintain a single posture all day. If you’re hearing deafening overtones of Taylorism, it must be comforting to know that the jobs with the highest rates of muscle-related disorders are also the ones attracting robotics specialists. But maybe before—or even in place of—autonomous robots taking over, exoskeletons will make those remaining hours on the line less tiring.

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