Interview with Professor Ulf Müller, Head of the Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems at the Technical University of Cologne
Whether in the office, at school or behind the wheel: we spend a lot of time sitting and often stay in the same position for too long. The possible side effects are stiffness, back problems and pain. The SensA-Chair smart seating solution combats decreased mobility and ensures dynamic sitting.
Prof. Ulf Müller, Head of the Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems at the Technical University of Cologne
In this MEDICA.de interview, Professor Ulf Müller, MD, talks about disc desiccation (or dehydration), describes the role of artificial intelligence in the medical field and reveals what’s in the cushions.
The Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems of the Technical University of Cologne developed the "SensA-Chair". What is that exactly?
Prof. Ulf Müller: SensA-Chair is a BMBF-funded R & D project, which was executed by the Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems at the Technical University of Cologne in collaboration with three industry partners and two other universities.
Over the course of this project, we developed a smart seating system designed to prevent health problems associated with prolonged static sitting and an unchanged posture by actively promoting active dynamic sitting through regular sitting adjustments.
Long sitting puts a strain on our back and spine. How can we envision this strain?
Müller: The muscles of the back and the spine have to endure the pressure of your own body weight and the strain from physical activities. Lack of activity or movement causes the muscles and discs that are located between the vertebrae of the spine and act as shock absorbers to atrophy or degenerate. This is especially the case when we are sitting.
Staying in the same sitting position for long periods decreases oxygen and nutrient supply of the spinal discs, causing them to dehydrate or become brittle. Only regular movement, i.e., straining and relieving the spinal discs drives diffusion and prompts the nutrients to move from the surrounding tissue into the discs and keep them soft and elastic, thus enabling them to absorb pressure that is acting on them. The same applies to the back muscles.
Many people suffer from back pain. One of the reasons for this is sitting for long periods without changing position.
How exactly does this smart seating system work and which body parts does it support?
Müller: SensA-Chair is primarily designed to support users in changing their sitting position at regular intervals without being intrusive or disrupting their daily lives. That’s why we stayed away from optical or acoustic signals to indicate the need to change positions. Instead, users are prompted to subconsciously change their sitting positions at regular intervals, thus promoting dynamic sitting.
Integrated sensors in the seat and the backrest detect the sitting position. Silent shape-memory alloy actuators are embedded in the cushion and create haptic feedback by slightly elevating different areas of the seating surface.
This haptic feedback is very gentle to where the user doesn’t perceive it as annoying or intrusive. What’s more, it comes in different intensity levels to once again remind the user to change the sitting position. In doing so, it doesn’t break the user’s concentration.
The right time to change the sitting position is based on the current sitting position and the length of time the user has stayed in it. We collaborated with the German Sport University Cologne and classified the most common and frequent sitting positions in office or desk work based on the degree of muscle strain and the maximum value of overstrain. An algorithm subsequently signals the right time to switch into another position to prevent strain.
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A concept design of an anatomically meaningful office chair.
Who is the target audience for this system and why would you recommend a purchase?
Müller: The target group is anyone who has to sit a lot at their job and is therefore at a greater risk of suffering from back pain. Not only does this apply to office work but it also affects professional drivers with long hours behind the wheel or people who are traveling a lot by car.
How did you come up with the idea for "SensA-Chair"?
Müller: The Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems in Cologne primarily specializes in developing smart, sensor-based solutions that are not just used for industrial applications but also make people’s lives easier.
This also prompted an emphasis on the subject of health care, which is gaining importance as a result of the aging population and the fact that people now work longer before retiring. When one colleague earned a doctorate in ergonomics, ties with the German Sport University and industry partners were forged to jointly solve challenges posed by the demographic transition by developing smart and ergonomic products and equipment. This also drew attention to concerns that "sitting is the new smoking" and how "healthy ways of sitting" can be achieved with the help of smart technologies.
The model of an actuator built into the upholstery of the chair.
The two-year project phase ended in 2018. What is your conclusion?
Müller: SensA Chair was a very challenging research project on an exciting topic that affects all of us. The collaboration with partners from different disciplines proved to be very productive and rewarding and allowed for new insights. We built a first prototype of the seating system, which will hopefully be further enhanced and brought to market in the near future.
What role will artificial intelligence play in the future of medicine?
Müller: The SensA-Chair and its prospective sitting positions to prevent back pain use AI to predict the time and level of back muscle fatigue without the need for non-invasive or minimally invasive measurements of the muscle tissue. By entering sitting profiles and sitting patterns into the equation, the system can facilitate a more accurate assessment of the strain on the musculoskeletal system. What’s more, an interdisciplinary and cross-system approach to data collection and sharing and the application of specialized AI systems can identify problems faster and thus find quicker solutions in a more targeted fashion.
This interview was conducted Katja Laska and translated by Elena O’Meara.