MIT’s Media Lab designs office space that helps you chill out when you're stressed at work

A working space that keeps you focused and refreshed

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Nan Zhao's office knows when pressures and deadline have raised stress levels — and it's time to either relax or perhaps help amp up someone's focus. Mediated Atmosphere( MA), a project out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab, shifts the lighting and even projects imagery across a wall screen to lift moods and bring some calm to offset a frenetic energy at work.

The smart office space of 30 years ago implied a work environment where paper disappeared into computers, and desks and chairs formed to our bodies in an ergodynamic way. Today's smart offices are far more intuitive than chairs that help us avoid carpal tunnel syndrome — and people are eager to tap into these upgraded technologies. From smart lights to sensors that help reduce energy consumption, the smart office market is expected to be worth $46.11 billion by 2023, according to Seattle-based research firm MarketsandMarkets.

Harnessing lights and a rear projection screen and speaker, the small smart office from MIT could fit as easily into a multi-floor company — or a home for telecommuters. The technology actually lifts some elements from devices people use in their living areas including multi-hued lights. But some of the pieces, such as a rear-projection screen, aren't what we typically see next to the water cooler.

"People need a place that is fascinating, that gives them a feeling of being away, and is rich but predictable," Zhan, who is currently a research scientist at MIT's Media Lab, told MIT News. "However, this place is different for different people. With our approach, we want to create a personalized experience."

Information about a worker, from their facial expression to the way their head is shifted, is picked up via a camera on a computer and helps the system read someone's stress level. More details are gleaned from a wearable device on the wrist, able to read a heart rate to body temperature.

From that data, the office itself goes to work, shifting lights and running video on a projection screen that, in a demo video, changed from a calm stream running through a wooded environment, to another office space with people working.

Zhao's and her co-creators from MIT published a study on the space, where they were able to "…demonstrate MA's effects on occupants' ability to focus and to recover from a stressful situation," they wrote in the 2017 study. That apparently has drawn interest from brands including Bose and Phillips which are both interested in working with Zhao and her co-researchers on their prototype.

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