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What if you could summon a chair out of nowhere to appear whenever your back hurts or you just need a rest? That is the principle behind the “Chairless Chair,” a low-cost leg exoskeleton prototype developed by Zurich, Switzerland-based startup Noonee. The chair is a simple device that straps to a belt attached to users’ waists and stretches down the back of their legs, ultimately attaching to the heels of their shoes. This effectively supports a person’s bodyweight.
The device relieves joint and muscle stress that can pose serious health risks, particularly for people like factory workers who spend hours on end standing with poor and potentially debilitating posture.
Inspiration for the device first came to Noonee CEO Keith Gunura from his time working at a factory in the U.K. when he was only 17, where he would stand for his 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. shift.
“I personally experienced the discomfort of such working environments and so did my team member who was invited to work in a factory just to get an idea of how we could use our CC (Chairless Chair),” Gunura wrote in an email to FoxNews.com. “I mean standing at a concert for 3hrs is already bad.”
A factory job like Gunura’s that does not require chairs often means a worker will be standing for long periods of time in unhealthy posture, which can lead to joint and muscle pain.
While the idea behind Noonee’s design is nothing new, Gunura said that it was important for his team to find a way to make an exoskeleton that was lighter and cheaper. Many current technologies that add extra strength for a wearer to carry 60-pound backpacks, for instance, require lots of battery power and energy. For Gunara, it was important to develop something more efficient.
“We just took a bottom-up approach,” he wrote. “There is a need, a basic one, and it can simply (be) solved by a very low-level exo[skeleton], which doesn’t even give you extra strength … when you get the augmented strength you also get muscle weakness with time.”
A 2009 report from Swiss researchers on musculoskeletal disorders – injuries and degenerative diseases that cause pain in ligaments, joints, nerves, tendons, and muscles – looked at the great losses in financial gains and productivity that companies incur from worker injuries related to poor seating positions. With their new device, Gunura and his team at Noonee see an easy fix to a big problem.
In developing the chair, Gunura was surprised to find how little many employers focus on ergonomics when planning workspaces.
“Ergonomics are seriously the center of the focus. It will be a pressing enough issue once you see there is a solution you hadn’t thought of that actually works,” Gunura wrote. “It’s like at one point every company was happy with just the normal four-legged chair until the roller wheels came in. It became a must-have, and soon after, the ergonomic chair popped up and boom!”
To activate the device, the user just has to move into a desired pose, presses a button and lock the chair in place. The device, which weighs about 6.6 pounds, can run for 24 hours on a single 6-volt battery, and a person who wears the exoskeleton can still walk or run when the chair is not activated.
A unique approach to ergonomics, the device does not give the wearer extra strength, but offers much-needed reprieve to those standing in tiring assembly lines. Still a prototype, the device is currently being piloted in two German manufacturing facilities, and the Noonee team – currently based out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s Bio-Inspired Robotics Laboratory – hope to eventually make an even lighter version of the device. Gunura looks forward to seeing how this kind of technology could take off.
“We are inviting investors who want to join the ride in the vanguard of the ‘Chairolution,’ ” Gunura wrote. “In parallel, we will finish development and testing as well as establish a supply chain to get to product.”