Formula One drivers’ seats are not renowned for comfort. In fact, they are barely seats as we know them. In F1, it is said, grams cost thousands to shave off, and driver comfort seems almost an afterthought, with seat design focused on the body-machine interface, putting drivers in the best position to “feel” the car. They, accordingly, end up sitting-cum-lying on a plate of carbon fibre; even a bit of foam padding tends to be regarded as a weight extravagance.
A degree of comfort may be on the cards, however, for the drivers on one team at least: Infiniti Red Bull Racing. An unconventional carbon-fibre, Kevlar (a high-strength material first used in the 1970s as a replacement for steel in tyres) and aircraft-grade aluminium chair invented by a Swiss doctor and neuroscientist is being assessed by Infiniti, the team’s vehicle-performance partner, as both a training aid and a source of design inspiration in road cars. More remarkably, the Limbic seat, from Zürich company Inno-Motion, is already available to buy as an office chair, albeit one costing £7,800 upwards that is individually tailored to the needs of each customer.
Limbic’s inventor, Dr Patrik Künzler – who trained at the University of Zürich and Massachusetts Institute of Technology – says that the chair’s benefits include it being good for your back (F1 drivers suffer from famously bad back pain) and your balance. He also claims that by enabling you to move freely and use many of the motions associated with walking while sitting, it stimulates the limbic areas of the brain – the seat of emotions – and thereby makes you feel happier, more focused, more lively and more creative, and even enjoy an enhanced sense of taste.
Now, F1 drivers need many qualities on the circuit, but creativity and a discriminating palate are not among them. So what role does Infiniti see for the three Limbics it is currently assessing? “Our designers and engineers are inspired by this technology,” confirms Andreas Sigl, global director of Infiniti Formula One. But he leaves it to Dr Künzler to explain more: “It’s about improving the driver interface. So studies are ongoing with body-machine interface experts and ergonomics engineers – the same folks working with Sebastian Vettel, Infiniti’s director of performance. Being in the Limbic chair enhances sensitivity to touch, balance and proprioception – the body’s sense of its parts. The improvement lasts for some time after leaving the chair, thus helping drivers feel their cars better, at least at the beginning of the race.”
Drivers could soon, he adds, be performing their pre-race balance, coordination and visualisation exercises in the chair. Upon leaving it, their back and posture muscles will be relaxed, and other muscles around the spine and abs built up. As for using the technology for actual racing-car seats, Künzler claims that compared to the hard, crude carbon-fibre platforms drivers are used to, Limbic feels “comfortable, inspiring and seductive”.
So, after a few weeks driving a Limbic at my desk, is it comfortable, inspiring and seductive as an office chair? Well, not exactly. And was I glad when my loan Limbic was collected by posture expert Roger Golten, whose company distributes it in the UK? Well, again, no, not exactly. In the time we had been together, Limbic and I built up a wary but respectful relationship.
To be honest, when I saw it each morning, my spirits sank a little. I know F1 drivers don’t just jump into their vehicles, but I like to plonk into an office chair, and Limbic is not for plonking. Getting into it feels more like saddling up a truculent mule. Make a mistake and it comes close to emasculating you. If you were a skirt-wearing lady (or a traditionalist Scotsman, for whom it’s doubly tricky), it would be almost impossible to mount.
However, once you have mastered Limbic and trained yourself to treat it carefully, a world of sitting pleasure awaits. And, no, I’m still not suggesting actual comfort; overly comfy work chairs are regarded by experts as a health menace because they encourage us to sit motionless. No, Limbic is a good-for-you chair because it fools the body into thinking you’re not sitting but “walking”, stretching, moving in several ways.
Of course, the dangers of being traditionally sedentary for long periods are becoming widely known. Elevated blood glucose and blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression – even muscle atrophy and cancer – have been linked by respectable studies to an overly sedate lifestyle. My recent Technopolis TV video about treadmill desks (Walk while you work, on Howtospendit.com) showed how keeping active in the office is increasingly advocated for health. Through its multidirectional pivoting design, the Limbic chair allows you to shift constantly and in countless ways, with each leg moving independently. The sensation isn’t unlike flying, I imagine, and although the pressure from the carbon-fibre/Kevlar buttock-holders still falls some way short of being pleasant, the result is that sitting feels like a healthy activity.
Does Limbic work for those of us who don’t drive F1 cars? I think it does. Both backache and happiness are slippery concepts. Sure, you know when your back is killing you, but I often get my backaches through stress. I once had a six-month one when I was in a job I hated; it vanished the day I was transferred. Even today, if I get up from my normal chair after a tricky work session, I can be doubled over for a minute or two thanks to a sore back. With Limbic, even if I was doing a stressful task, I was stretching, leaning, twisting and bouncing, and when I stood up (desaddled, more like) I never got so much as a twinge.
As for happiness and creativity, I don’t know. I suppose I was feeling quite happy and creative anyway, but there were a dozen reasons for that, among which the chair didn’t really rate highly. On the other hand, the movement Limbic engenders also makes you rather content – perhaps because you feel that such mobility has to be healthy. As Golten told me when he delivered the chair: “Sitting is one of the biggest problems for modern human health. We have legs, not roots. We were designed to move.” Or, as Dr K puts it: “Why should furniture force us to sit still?”
On the starting grid to a healthier office life, I think Limbic may even deserve pole position.