As of now, robotic exoskeletons are the closest thing to a real-life “Iron Man” suit. Strapping one on allows just about any mere mortal to pull off all sorts of extraordinary feats, like lift objects that weigh well over 100 pounds and run for hours — all without breaking a sweat.
Keith Gunura, a robotics engineer and chief executive of Zurich-based start-up noonee, has come up with something that the average person may actually find a lot more practical. Designed as a simple mechanical attachment that fits behind the user’s legs, the “Chairless Chair” makes it possible to have a seat, anytime and anywhere.
The device is less conspicuous than the head-to-toe machinery being developed for battlefield soldiers, though it still looks unfashionably robotic. It’s held securely in place by a series of straps that wrap around the thigh, and parts that latch on at the hip and ankle. Made of lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber, it tacks on no more than 4.5 pounds and allows for a full range of movement.
Of course, it’s perfect for those mildly inconvenient, yet seemingly unbearable situations such as having to wait in a long line or riding in a crowded bus, where there’s usually little choice but to stay standing for lengthy periods of time. So you can imagine what it would mean for those whose entire livelihood involved being on their feet for several hours at a time, most notably factory or assembly-line workers.
For two weeks, Gunura was one of them. One of his earliest gigs was at a packaging plant where clocking in eleven hour shifts was the norm. His co-workers often complained of work conditions that were so unrelentingly strenuous that they often hurried home to soak their feet in warm water to relieve the pain and soreness.
“It was one of those jobs where people who didn’t need to work there often left after a week because it took such a toll on you, since you were constantly moving a lot, all day, from one conveyor belt to another,” he says. “And putting chairs in these cramped, tight spaces would only get in the way.”
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) or injuries, which stem from repetitive strain and bad posture, are a fairly widespread problem among those in the labor force. It’s a leading cause of lost productivity and accounts for a third of reported workplace injuries and illness, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Long after he went on to work in a robotics lab, that momentary glimpse of factory life stuck with Gunura, who originally hailed from Zimbabwe, and inspired him to tinker with various designs. As he thought through the concept, he also queried physiologists and therapists to make sure that a technology that might make people more inclined to rest wouldn’t end up encouraging habits that would be detrimental to their long-term health.
“The problem with powered exoskeletons, and one of the big reasons why people have rejected them for anything besides rehabilitation, is that people can become dependent on the technology and lose muscle mass unless they work out,” he points out. “With sitting, it’s something that people do regularly anyway, so it won’t affect them as much.”
After going through several prototypes, Gunura settled on a model with a dampening mechanism that distributes the person’s weight away from the knees and toward the heels, with balance supported by systematically locking the device at the hips and ankles. The varying levels of resistance are powered by a six-volt battery that’s said to last all day on a charge.
“It’s designed to work more like a leg brace and so you don’t put all your weight on it,” Gunura explains. “But I’d say it feels 90 percent like sitting in a chair, and how low you can go on it without feeling too much strain will depend on your posture and your own physiology.
“So the lower you can go,” he adds, “the more you feel like sitting in a chair.”
The project, funded through a grant from the Swiss government, is geared primarily toward industrial sectors such as manufacturing and hospitals, where it may be of use to surgeons. Gunura and his team have tested the exoskeleton on varying body types, including bow-legged people, women and men in preparation for a commercial launch in the fall. Currently, the “Chairless Chair” comes in two sizes, for large and small body types. Pricing has yet to be determined.
For now, Gunara and his team are working to refine a sleeker prototype that should be much easier on the eyes, though he admits it will be a while before the technology can be hidden seamlessly under clothes. “An invisible chair, I think, is something that’s possible several years in the future,” he adds. “If someone can wear a normal pair of jeans and impress his friends by sitting in midair, well, that’d be our dream. ”