Gamification — using gamelike mechanics and achievements to engage users — and the concept of the "quantified self" are two of the biggest trends of the last few years, and they've helped companies like Fitbit, Withings,and Jawbone go mainstream. These companies are dedicated to making you more active, but they don't really tackle the fact that millions of people around the world have to spend hours every day at a desk. And there are myriad studies showing that sitting all day is terrible for you; getting an expensive, adjustable standing desk is one option, but that doesn't mean you'll always remember or feel like using it in the standing position.
A new Los Angeles-based company called Stir thinks they've cracked the problem: gamifying the standing desk. On the surface, Stir's new Kinetic Desk looks like your average adjustable desk. It's a high-quality, well-crafted mechanical surface that can be adjusted for both sitting and standing. But don't let its unassuming looks fool you — there's a lot more going on within the Kinetic Desk than is apparent at first glance.
The Kinetic is a mashup of a smartphone, desk, and Fitbit
On the surface, the desk's most unique feature is its 4.3-inch touchscreen, which lets information junkies track exactly how long they stand and sit each day. You can tell the desk what percentage of the time you want to spend standing and see historical data across days, weeks, and months. It even estimates how many extra calories you burn when standing instead of sitting. Essentially, Stir is gamifying the desk in an effort to encourage users to stand up. The desk also has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections for eventual hookup to wearable fitness devices and smartphones. The company didn't have a lot of details on how that'll work yet, though — Kinetic Desk will launch as a stand-alone product, and new features will be added down the road through software updates and new partnerships.
The Kinetic Desk goes beyond simple data tracking, though. Users can alternate between preset standing and sitting heights simply by double-tapping the touchscreen, but there's also an "active mode" that can be enabled by pressing a button on the front of the desk. Active mode is built entirely on the concept that the Kinect Desk can actually learn your sitting and standing habits and use that data to encourage you to stand up at times when it has learned you're likely to. Learning mode is based on a built-in thermal sensor that detects when you're at the desk — it wakes up when you're nearby and uses that info to learn your preferences over time. Based on that knowledge, the desk can actually "nudge" you when in active mode as a reminder to change your position.
A classy and elegant piece of furniture, if a bit plain
The desk "nudges" you by slowly rising and then falling a nearly imperceptible amount — probably an inch or so. Stir calls this "WhisperBreath," because the slow rise and fall is meant to mimic taking a deep breath — it's a lot like the breathing sleep light that Apple used to include on its computers. I sat down at the desk to feel a WhisperBreath bump for myself, and it's not jarring whatsoever. If you're on the phone or eating lunch, you can easily ignore the desk's suggestion, but it gets your attention enough to encourage you to change your position if the time is right for you.
Smart desks don't come cheap
Beyond the Kinetics Desk's feature set it is a classy and elegant, if plain, piece of furniture. The surface is made up of a birch core with either a hard-coated glossy polymer or hardwood finish. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the hardwood finish; the glossy polymer feels sturdy and is certainly easy to clean, but a wooden surface would likely be quite a bit more eye-catching. The top is Spartan aside from the lower-left side touchscreen and, on either side of the desk's surface, two ports for AC and USB outlets. A single power cord extends from the back and provides all the juice the desk needs. Another option for buyers is one of five accent colors for the desk's underside, power cord, and outlet compartments — the green option I saw definitely looked like it would match well with a new iPhone 5C.
All this technology and "made in the US" craftsmanship (the desktops are built in Brooklyn, and the desks are assembled outside of Nashville) doesn't come cheap. The Kinetic Desk will cost $3,890 when it launches in the first quarter of 2014, with pre-orders starting before the end of the year. You can definitely find mechanically adjustable standing desks for less, but Stir's pricing isn't out of line with premium models — and there's no doubt that it offers some unique features. Whether or not the Kinetic desk is worth its cost will depend on the software — if Stir can nail the learning mode and build a desk that truly adjust to your habits, it may have figured out how to get deskbound workers off their butts.