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Tech by VICE

Should Massage Tables Replace Office Chairs? An Ergonomics Investigation

Chairs are bad for you and massage tables have a hole for your face to look at a screen on the floor. What could go wrong?

by Jason Koebler
Nov 8 2019, 2:00pm

Every day I walk into the VICE offices, sit on a chair, turn my computer on, and proceed to do eight-to-ten hours worth of damage to my body. I slouch. I hunch. I cross my legs. I lean back. I move the hydraulic chair thingy up and then down and then up and then down and then up and then down. My back hurts always.

Soon, I will look like “Emma,” the "disturbing office worker of the future." I believe there is a better way.

I dream of a world in which we replace desks not with standing desks (which require standing), but with massage tables. Not because I think any of us deserve massages while we tweet or stare at a spreadsheet, but because they have a specific feature that would allow us to radically redesign the computing experience: The face hole.

As I type this, I am living this dream. I'm lying on my stomach, staring through a massage table’s face hole at a monitor I’ve put on the floor.

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Unfortunately, I do not own a massage table, nor, to my knowledge, does VICE Media Group LLC. So I had to find one. I considered renting a massage table or buying one. But I thought it'd probably just be best if I did it at one of the many massage studios in Brooklyn. I planned to email dozens of them until I found one open-minded enough to allow me to blog from bed, but it turns out I only had to try one: PRESS Massage Williamsburg.

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Within hours of sending that email, I got a response from PRESS’s CEO Rachel Beider, who was surprisingly open to my idea. We set up a call. The first thing she told me is that she’s been working on a still-undisclosed project that “involves looking at an iPad and typing while being facedown on a massage table. I’m super familiar working with an iPad facedown through a face cradle."

She then texted me some concept art:

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I had clearly found the right person.

The next day, I packed my laptop, keyboard, and mouse into my backpack and unplugged my monitor and carried it the 10 blocks to PRESS. The receptionist asked if I was Jason and I asked how she knew. “Well, everything about you,” she said.

I was then greeted by Rachel, who took me into a massage room and helped me get set up. While she was open-minded about my idea, she explained that her massage table computing project isn't supposed to be an office desk replacement and that my specific setup would probably not be good, ergonomically speaking.

“I don’t think this is going to be that comfortable,” she said.

My main concern was what I was going to do with my hands, arms, and the keyboard. Other concerns: My glasses, which would either hurt me or break with the pressure my head was putting on the face cradle, and my hair, which fell in front of my eyes. I put on contacts and a hair tie, no problem. We then set up a series of stools to hold the mouse and the keyboard. The monitor was directly below my face. Within moments, I was set up and relatively comfortable. I logged onto the Wi-Fi and started writing.

To test the efficiency of my setup, I tried a typing test. It was: Not bad! I typed 72 words per minute, which is slower than the 93 words per minute I got when I was back at my desk, but much faster than the 36 words per minute typingtest.com says is “average.” It is also faster than the 23.5 words per minute I got after drinking 15 beers, which is worth noting.

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Within 15 minutes or so, I felt as though perhaps my ergonomic experiment would not revolutionize the American office. My back started hurting. The area between my shoulder blades felt tense, and my triceps also started to feel strained. I asked Rachel, who is also an ergonomics expert, why my carefully crafted plan had failed.

“I think it could work for very short periods of time, but the challenge is when you’re lying face down on a massage table, after 30 minutes, we would flip a client over just because you can start to get tension in your face from putting all that tension on your cheekbones and forehead," she said. "What you noticed is you started to feel it in your mid-back, in the lower trapezius—stretching your arms out from that position is not great for you."

More science is necessary. A split keyboard and a trackball would allow me to keep my arms directly at my sides, which is a much more comfortable position, for example. Rachel also suggested that I might want to consider that rather than laying on my stomach, I should recline on my back, like a vampire in a coffin or perhaps like some sort of Gravitron ride, with the screen suspended above my head, sort of like this:

The point is, though my massage table experience wasn't super comfortable, sitting at a desk is also not good: "The majority of the injuries we see are from desks, 9-5. Carpal tunnel, shoulder tension," Rachel said. At least I had tried to do something about it.