Designed to foster communication and community in public spaces, the Digital Yurt, an experimental work environment from Michigan-based office systems manufacturer Steelcase, employs the unique controllability of LEDs to broadcast to those on the outside the activity inside.

The prototype, 10 1/2 feet in diameter, is based on a traditional yurt-a circular, portable tent used by nomadic peoples of central Asia as a communal living and meeting space. 'People knew which yurt had the greatest number of occupants and hence the most going on, because it had the brightest fire,' says James Ludwig, Steelcase's director of design and the creative force behind the Digital Yurt. 'We tried to recreate that effect.'

As people enter the structure, a motion sensor on the ceiling signals RGB LEDs located behind the backrest to increase in brightness and to change in color temperature from 6500K (cool) when unoccupied, to 3000K (warm) when occupied by nine or more people. The 'cloud,' a ring-shaped pendant that hangs from the ceiling above the pod, is also illuminated with sensor-driven LEDs. It oscillates between light and dark with growing intensity and frequency as the Digital Yurt receives more occupants, similar to the effect created when clouds pass by the sun. The acoustics are designed to keep conversation in and noise out, while a 1-1/2-inch opening, located at eye level, runs around the perimeter of the pod. It allows those inside to see out and those outside to see in, particularly to observe the changing lighting effects.

Though there are not yet plans for mass production, Steelcase is currently producing a limited number of the prototypes for testing and observation in various settings, including learning and healthcare environments, airports, and offices. jennifer brite