A desk as smart as you

As tiny, internet-connected computers find their way into hundreds of mundane household objects, the coming “internet of things” will drastically change how people live, work and play. Connected devices can keep records and share data among themselves. The potential benefits are enormous, especially when it comes to our health.

Researchers at the Texas A&M School of Public Health have uncovered one of these possibilities when it comes to improving a simple piece of furniture that many of us use for hours each day: a computer desk.

While it’s a commonly accepted fact that remaining sedentary for long periods of time is bad for our health, many people lack the ability to track exactly how much their time is actually spent sitting. That’s where the internet of things comes in.

The Texas A&M researchers modified a sit-stand desk — a mechanized desk that can automatically raise or lower so that it can be used sitting or standing. The researchers added sensors so the desk could detect whether it was in the sitting or standing configuration, as well as programming logic that would send an alert to the desk’s user if the desk had been in the sitting configuration for too long.

“We are testing to see if we can break up those long periods of sedentary time during the day,” lead researcher Mark Benden said. “We think technology might be good at encouraging behavior we want.”

Benden is associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center and member of the Center for Remote Health Technologies and Systems.

“We’re trying to increase and sustain the usage of stand-capable workstations by making it as easy as possible,” Parag Sharma said. Sharma is a graduate student assisting Benden on the project. “A notification will pop up on the screen when it’s time to change the desk position, and with just a click of the mouse, the desk will raise or lower itself.”

As Sharma notes, the software will remind users to sit if they’ve had the desk in the standing configuration for too long, since rest breaks are an important contributor to health as well.

In addition to reminding users to change positions regularly, the software also monitors how often people are actually using the desks, the number of configuration changes per day and even metrics such as words per minute typed that can help determine productivity. The researchers plan to continue collecting and studying the data to see what other insights they might gain.