Depending on whom you ask and their level of optimism for the future, the Altwork chair looks either like a dentist's chair or an astronaut's. Regardless, with its many limbs, wonky angles, and robotlike aesthetic, it's not something that springs to mind when you think "office chair." And according to Altwork CEO Che Voigt, that's precisely the point; the desks and chairs we use at work haven't changed all that much over the years. Voigt thinks his small team in Sonoma County, California, has figured out a way to make them better — and, by extension, a better way to work.
That better way to work is Altwork's eponymous first chair, a vaguely intimidating mass of cushioned fabric, motors, and metal arms. The hardware is necessary because the Altwork is designed to be adjustable. It has four main modes: standing; sitting; collaborating — sitting, but the chair's display facing outward so co-workers can see what you're working on; and "focus" — reclined fully, the screen suspended above your head.
Focus mode is extraordinarily comfortable -- so comfortable that after I saw a demo in a windowless room in a San Francisco co-working space (no windows because Altwork was keeping its designs under wraps), it was hard for me to imagine not falling asleep in it. Maybe that's because I'm not really one for the kind of sustained focus that the Altwork is built to facilitate. This is less a chair than it is an ergonomic, adjustable productivity tool for the technological workhorses — the coders, CAD engineers, competitive gamers; the people who spend intense, sustained hours in front of two screens.
Whether you need something as heavy-duty as the Altwork to remain good at your job remains to be seen. It certainly does feel better than a normal chair: It's designed to be ergonomic in its sitting position, plus desks that can alternate between sitting and standing are all the rage right now. What remains to be seen, essentially, is whether the close-to-horizontal, focus mode is actually productivity-inducing and not just a supremely comfortable, very expensive way to fall asleep watching Netflix. So while Altwork is actively pursuing research to prove that a relaxed, supported position does, in fact, make you a more industrious worker, the only way to prove it for now is to start getting people into its chairs.
And to get an Altwork, you have to pay. A lot. For preorders — which start today — it's going to cost $3,900. However, that's actually a hefty discount. When the chair ships in mid-2016, it's going to come with a listing price of $5,900. Of course, the first question to ask is who, exactly, is shelling out $6,000 for a chair that looks like something from Star Trek or, less charitably, Wall-E.
The answer is companies — specifically, tech companies. Altwork expects to sell very few to individual consumers, instead envisioning the employers of software developers and engineers replacing the desk-and-chair workspaces with these pods. The 18 square feet of space they take up isn't that much more than what a worker uses in an open-plan office, after all.
Given the money flowing into Silicon Valley and the attendant office perks that come with it, $6,000 for an office chair and desk combination is squarely in the realm of possibility. The Altwork, while expensive, does compete economically with the pairings of very high-end ergonomic executive's chairs and motorized standing desks — essentially the two things it's combined into one. The biggest challenge isn't going to be convincing companies to shell out, it's going to be convincing people to change what working looks like entirely.
Brendan Klinkenberg is a tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Brendan Klinkenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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