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'Poet' of technology

William Collier: Aura workstation

iconWilliam Collier is best known for his creation of the Aura workstation. A close look at its rotational stand-alone environment is in our interactive gallery. Take a spin by clicking here.

By Porter Anderson

(CNN) -- "I remember when I was 15 years old, there was a problem in Chicago with airline traffic. Noise pollution. There was talk about putting an airport out in Lake Michigan. My idea was to put the airport underground. Have the runways on the water. And have elevators take the planes up and down like they do on aircraft carriers. There was a Museum of Science and Industry contest there in Chicago, and I did that for a high-school project and built a whole model of it and had the planes taking off and parking underneath and it was the whole bizarre thing."

He stops to take a breath.

"That was a far-out thing that would never become reality, of course. But that's how my mind was working."

That's how the mind of William Collier, 48, still is working.

"Look at what's happening in the workplace. Cubicles aren't the answer.

Despite his creation of the Aura workstation as a response to those anachronisms, Collier says he doesn't like to concede to people that he's an inventor.

graphic Have a look at William Collier's Aura -- then tell us how's your workstation?

I'm casting my vote from the pits: My work space is out-of-date. Where's that sealing wax?
I'm sitting on the fence. Figuratively. Parts of my workstation are OK, others really reek.
I'm lucky. Good lighting, ventilation, sight lines, seating ... wait a minute, this IS an Aura I'm sitting in.
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"The establishment has this stereotype of inventors as being crazy scientists. I'd like to see credibility given to inventors. It's a tough thing to do, though, because there are a lot of crackpots out there."


Wrapped in an 'aura'

While the crackpots were toiling away over that better mousetrap, Collier conceived of the "Dilbert"-dire workplace as a gestalt -- a collection of inseparable issues.

"I decided ergonomics weren't the only issue. Because the environmental issues play on those ergonomics of the worker: It's usually too drafty, too cold, too warm. Everybody's body is different. The lighting levels are inappropriate because everybody's eyes are different. We wanted an electronic air filter in the Aura to clean the air.

"So I felt the only way to bring this to market in a way I knew would be ergonomically and environmentally correct would be to wrap it in one complete package. I didn't want to depend on the architect to put the correct lighting into a building. I didn't want to depend on the mechanical engineer to do the right ventilation. I knew I had to put it all into my package as a stand-alone."

A fully equipped Aura is a free-standing environment engineered to give the user control over airflow, lighting, temperature, seating and even orientation on the compass.

As its name implies, William Collier's Aura workstation surrounds the user, offering control of seating positions, lighting, air filtration, temperature and sight lines. Here's an interactive gallery of images and optional features.  

It can hold four screens and 20 electrical pockets on two circuits. It can include warm-wood work surfaces amid its silvery sculpture. Its seat has seven adjustments available and the option of inflatable cushions. Its air-circulation system delivers up to 22 filtered changes per hour with the option of radiant heat. And it turns on its axis.

Poetic Technologies, based in Montreal, is the company Collier formed in 1995 to develop the Aura over some three years -- followed by a year-and-a-half of pre-production and marketing -- with 11 associates and, eventually, the input of some 100 people, he says.

"It wasn't without disagreements. We had sociologists, psychologists, chiropractors, ergonomists. I had four Ph.D. ergonomists on the project. And the chiropractor told them, 'You keep putting them in that position (in the chair) and I'll keep treating them.'"

The chiropractor won that one. "Understanding the logic from both perspectives, the only way to go was her side."

Response to the Aura tends to indicate that a lot of other people are seeing the logic, too.

"In the last two months, we've had about 2.2 million hits on our Web site," Collier says. "That doesn't mean they'll all be buyers, but it tells me there are 2 million people out there saying, 'We're not happy with where we're sitting.

"Being an inventor, I chose the career side of my life instead of the personal side. I have a lot of resentment over that because I'm not married and don't have any children. That may be my next project. But if I had a family, I probably wouldn't have taken the risk to develop the Aura."
— William Collier, Poetic Technologies

"Our business plan was to build only about 2,000 stations this year. Now we're making decisions about putting in a second (production) shift. And we just had someone call from California on a defense project -- they're talking about 400 of them."

The high-end fully electronic model of the Aura lists for $7,769. A series of five more models -- the Élan, Epic, Muse, Echo and Spirit -- offer variously abridged versions of the Aura, taking away the air-filtration system, for example, or the lighting or rotation.

"Once people see it at trade shows," Collier says, "you know what they say? -- 'Oh, it's real.' They'll see it in journals, but don't even believe it's out there until they can sit in it for themselves."


In rotation

The Aura seems to hold an almost organic charisma for many information-tech (IT) workers. If you're a fairly casual 'puter-head, yourself, ask some dyed-in-the-LCD friend. There's a good chance she or he will know the Aura, may get pretty animated telling you about it -- may want to own its coolness in the extreme.

"Workers like that are at their computers, they tell me, up to 12 and 14 hours a day," Collier says. "So the slow rotation setting on the Aura turns you at one degree every four minutes. At high speed, you move 120 degrees in 15 seconds."

The Aura's rotation at slow speed is silent, says William Collier. A high speed turn can make the full arc in 15 seconds, useful for turning a cluster of units toward each other -- so, for example, employees in a design studio can talk over their projects.  

That's one of the most talked-about features of the Aura, its rotation. Afternoon sun on your screen? Just give the Aura a partial turn. "The funny thing is," Collier says, "that people will sometimes say, 'I don't know what I'd want with the rotation.' But it's like power windows in a car. As long as you're using crank windows, you don't know how much you're going to like power.

"The rotation was developed for sight lines. People become bored sitting in the same place all day. This is enough change to refresh."

Unless you're Collier. "I change my workspace three or four times a day. I physically go from a terrace to an office to someone else's office. I do most of my creative work up at a chalet in the mountains" some 60 miles north of Montreal. "I move around because it's refreshing."

If you ask how many concepts are in the incubator of his mind right now, Collier knows: "I have 22 inventions in my brain -- some that are marketable, some that aren't."

The ones that aren't marketable won't get far. Collier, you learn quickly, approaches the gauzy sheers of his ingenuity with a steely demand for feasibility. He has learned the hard way just how difficult a tangible, working invention is to protect.


From the floor up

To talk with Collier is to explore a curious balance of rational market savvy and sometimes audacious creativity. The conversation drifts and turns, races along for a bit, then falters momentarily as one interest eddies into another. And yet the stream of his consciousness is completely intelligible and full of laughter -- this is hardly the stark-staring professor he says he fears people will think he is if he announces his true career.

"I remember sitting at Christmas dinner at a friend's home. Her father was a minister, and he said to me, 'You're a genuine poet. And I said, 'God, that's a wonderful thing because I never think of myself as a poet.' But poetry's not limited to lyrics by any stretch of the imagination." Hence the name of his company, Poetic Technologies.

"I remember inventing things when I was 10," when growing up in Chicago. "I remember sitting at O'Hare Airport waiting for my father to come in, my mother and brother were there. I'd see this guy going up and down the hall with a floor scrubber. Wash the floors, suck the water back in. I wanted to know why they didn't just build that into the baseboards of the building -- it would come out, clean the floors, go back in and it would be done.

William Collier's design for the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has modular pits that can be raised or lowered between 5 and 65 inches' height to accommodate changing trading volumes.  

"And up to when I was 11 or 12, I'd build decorative bird cages, take them to women's beauty salons and sell them for $4 apiece. So I was an inventor in those days, but a marketer, too. If you want to be an inventor, you simply have to have the marketing background."

Collier finished high school and started studies at Triton College in the suburbs of Chicago. But after one semester, he says, "enough was enough. I became a distributor for Westinghouse, back in 1969, selling their 'systems furniture for offices' -- what we call 'cube farms' today. Did demountable partitions and raised floors."

The inventor was working with the very tools of work-space design that he'd reject in creating the Aura.

Collier developed and patented the Interstitial multi-level raised floor "that can isolate the air-conditioning from the high-voltage and low-voltage wiring underneath the floor of a computer room."

His work in high-tech raised flooring, in fact, took him to a couple of major jobs. In the 1980s, Collier developed the Chicago Board of Options Exchange's 36,000-square-foot trading floor, 37 inches high. He also designed the modular trading pits of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and that exchange's indirect high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting.

But Collier was headed for a bitter, six-year patent-protection battle. Not only had he slogged through the complications of building codes and union regulations in these major projects, but he says he saw his own drawings for his floor copied on another company's stationery.

"People who build facilities for mainframes will spend up to $350 per square foot. If the mainframe doesn't have the right operating temperature, proper humidity level and proper electrical, it stops working or spits out bad work. For the people of a corporation, they'll spend about $40 per square foot. Because people are adaptable."
— William Collier, Poetic Technologies

"Copied to the degree that where I'd spelled the word 'receptacle' wrong, you could see my handwriting with the word spelled wrong. The objective (of the competitors who'd claimed his design as theirs) was to take all the orders, drive me out of business -- and they'd win.

"What brought me here to Montreal was a contract for the Interstitial floor with the Canadian National Railroad. The CN Railroad said" -- to the company that was trying to take business from Collier -- "'He has the U.S. patent, he has the Canadian patent, get out of here.' They did the right thing" and defended their contract with Collier for the implementation of his invention.

Collier says he'd been badly shaken by how precarious a patent on an invention can be. He says he never recouped all his expenses in litigation, although he did recover control of his raised-flooring patent and later licensed it to a third company.

"Won the war, lost six years. But it was a heck of an experience, you can't get it in a classroom. For an inventor, it was a good lesson. Patents are both expensive to get and to protect."


Other costs

Collier isn't married. "And that's a big drawback, too. Being an inventor, I chose the career side of my life instead of the personal side. I have a lot of resentment over that because I'm not married and don't have any children. That may be my next project.

"But if I had a family, I probably wouldn't have taken the risk to develop the Aura. I have a golf course I can walk to, 300 feet from my house. I haven't been on it for two years. When they talk about the inventor's and entrepreneur's life blood going into the business, it truly is their life blood. It's personally very costly."

Another product of so much personal expenditure is another forthcoming model of the Aura. Collier says the Îlot ("EE-low") has been designed for use in call stations and 911 centers. Each unit is to be a cluster of three stations with a common column. And within about 18 months, Collier says, Poetic will introduce a home model of the Aura.

Meanwhile, back at work, Collier says, too many employers create better environments for their machinery than for their staffs. "People who build facilities for mainframes will spend up to $350 per square foot. If the mainframe doesn't have the right operating temperature, proper humidity level and proper electrical, it stops working or spits out bad work.

The seat of the Aura has seven adjustments and can be made with inflatable cushions. Like other aspects of the unit, a user's settings can be recalled electronically by programmable memory.  

"For the people of a corporation, they'll spend about $40 per square foot. Because people are adaptable."

Including William Collier. "The next invention I make will be a consumer product. Something people go into the store and pick off the shelf and I don't have to do the sales-distribution side of it."

He knows what the product will be, he says, but can't announce it yet because of patent issues. He does laugh, though, at the thought of that project's ease by comparison to the development of the Aura.

"That next one," he says, "will be something that comes in a box."



• The Aura: Poetic Technologies
• Chicago Board Options Exchange
• Chicago Mercantile Exchange
• Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
• Triton College

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