A retro-futuristic approach to privacy in tomorrow’s office

The prototype Transformable Meeting Space, a drop-down cocoonlike structure, harkens back to the 1960s spy satire Get Smart to imagine how tomorrow’s offices—and office workers—will function.

A prototype of the Transformable Meeting Spaces design. Photo courtesy of Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Google + Michelle Kaufmann

Fans of the classic 1960s comedy series Get Smart may remember the Cone of Silence, a rather dubious anti-surveillance device that dropped from the ceiling when Maxwell Smart wanted a private conversation with the boss. The high-tech espionage gadget never, ever worked, but it always provided some inspired comedy.

Now, the Cone of Silence has returned, kinda-sorta, with a prototype initiative out of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab that aims to provide on-demand privacy for open-plan office designs. The idea is to find a middle ground between fixed offices — the old-school architectural approach of traditional walls, halls, and doors — with the popular open office designs of cubicles and shared work spaces.

Credit: CBS Television

The Transformable Meeting Spaces project is an ongoing research path for the Self-Assembly Lab, which specializes in designing “programmable material technologies” for construction and manufacturing. Stuff that turns into other stuff, basically. Among many other projects, the lab is currently developing flexible morphing structures that summon instant walls and partitions in an office setting.

Let’s say you’re standing in the middle of an open-office field of cubicles when conversation turns to something confidential — the twist in last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, say. Rather than wander off to find a private office, you can flip a switch — or perhaps pull a cord — and the private office will come to you, dropping down from its nested location in the ceiling.

The lab’s first public prototype, a collaboration with Google and designer Michelle Kaufmann, is a woven articulated structure that can be lowered quickly and quietly with a set of manual pulleys. Similar to the Cone of Silence, the structure features soundproofed materials to keep exchanges private. Unlike the Cone of Silence, the drop-down meeting space is lightweight, opaque and — most importantly — functional. That is to say, it actually works. (It also looks a little predatory as it drops down to swallow people up, but hey, that’s modern office life for you.)

Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Google + Michelle Kaufmann

“Currently, the prototype that we have developed is a one-off structure,” says Jared Laucks, co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab. “The panels on the ceiling-mounted version are walnut veneer, laminated to a felt backer for sound absorption when you are on the interior.”

Laucks says the team is actively developing variations on the theme using other textile materials, depending upon proposed applications and space requirements. The group is also thinking big. While the prototype unit can only comfortably fit a few people, the team is working on larger versions of the design that can basically drop a series of private and semiprivate meeting rooms into the middle of a large open-office space.

Like the end product it’s aiming for, the Transformable Meeting Spaces initiative is constantly changing shape. The idea is still in early-stage development, and it likely will be years before any commercial products find their way to market. In the meantime, designers plan to keep noodling around with the core concept.

“We’ve been exploring other configurations — wall-mounted versions or floor-mounted versions,” Laucks says. “We’ve also been working on a larger room-scale space partition — an 80-foot transformable screen with 64 different configurations.”

Details on the lab’s newest designs are being kept under wraps for now, but Laucks did share images of a new system with curving, curtainlike translucent walls controlled by a simple pulley system. With a few gentle tugs, your open lobby turns into a private meeting room. If you suspect the walls have ears, no problem: The ceiling has walls.

Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Google + Michelle Kaufmann

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