It would be impossible to spot the haunted desk from among the dozens of seemingly identical workstations in the Pervasive Wellbeing Technology Lab at Stanford School of Medicine. Yet this particular desk is a quiet ongoing experiment in wellness technology — and in human-robot relations.
The electric adjustable-height desk moves up and down, just like every other desk in the office does at its user’s direction. The difference with this desk is that it’s always moving up and down, whether you want it to or not.
The desk records your sitting and standing height preferences the first time you use it, then proceeds to smoothly alternate between those two heights at an interval preset by the user, forever, whenever the sensor underneath the desk detects a person sitting at it. There’s no pause button to hit if the desk moves at an inconvenient time, no snooze button to delay the shift. To choose this particular desk for your workstation is to agree to follow its unrelenting orders to regularly get up off your seat.
The desk doesn’t have an official name, but principal investigator Pablo Paredes and his colleagues refer to it amongst themselves as the “haunted desk,” inspired by a study participant who saw the desk rising unbidden before him and exclaimed that it was possessed.
Paredes is a computer scientist and professor of radiology and behavioral sciences departments at Stanford’s School of Medicine. He’s obsessed with how technology can transform mental health — specifically, how the most mundane objects and behaviors in our environment can be hacked to improve well-being with as little effort and awareness on the user’s part as possible.
Take the office desk. Long stretches of sitting, like those many office workers endure at their desks, are linked to health problems like obesity, diabetes, and muscular tension. Manually controlled sit-stand desks offer a happy compromise between the health benefits of standing desks and the comforts of sitting down and are a common offering in many workspaces for people.