I got into computers in my teenage years, back in the nineties. I spent a lot of time cooped up in my room for the simple reason that computers weren’t portable. I got a laptop early on, but I still remained at home. Going outdoors didn’t work because I didn’t have portable power. And, there was no way to do email or browse websites without a dialup modem, which had to be plugged into a wall.
After a short while, cell phones appeared. They quickly gained an email function and a basic internet browser. Finally, I was able to go outside and still be engaged with my computer passion. But using dialup internet through a cell phone was too costly, since there were no unlimited cellular plans. Portable power still remained an impossibility, and the familiar hunt for places with outlets began.
Things changed dramatically with the appearance of internet smart phones, with full keyboards and an array of apps. First it was the Sidekick and the Blackberry, then the iPhones. Now one could take internet experience on the go.
I am a computer programmer and use the computer all day. The unexpected thing about mobile devices, is that they removed the problem of ergonomics. One no longer needed a chair and a table to send an email or to browse the internet. Nevertheless, a full working environment still requires a laptop and therefore a correct ergonomic setup.
When using a handheld device like an iPhone, it’s easy to shade its screen with one’s own body. But, with a laptop one needs a separate shade, because the laptop is positioned further from the user. Also, the screen of the laptop must be elevated to a height slightly below the eye level.
There are more nuances. A correct sitting posture requires a 90 degree angle at the knees and elbows. This means that the table and a chair must be the right height. Also, many outdoor places don’t have a level ground. Some are on an incline, others have tree roots sticking from and deforming the ground. Thus, horizontal leveling an outdoor table is also a challenge.
What about portable power? I have a 2012 MacBook Pro. MacBooks use a lot of power, much more than mobile phones. Newer laptops have batteries that would last for eight hours, but the battery in my MacBook holds charge for three hours tops.
There’s also the issue of the internet connection. Some city parks have free WiFi. Otherwise, one can use the cellular LTE connection through a mobile Hotspot (or Tethering). Many companies now offer a data-only sim card under the name of a “tablet data plan.” Many others offer unlimited data plans for the primary sim card.
To get a good cell reception while outdoors, one can stay within the city limits. I prefer to work in parks, plentiful both at the city centers as well as the suburbs. In contrast, camping may require the phone to increase signal strength which would deplete a power battery faster.
What about food and toilet? There are many places outdoors that are in the nature and yet within five minutes from restaurants. I bring food from home. The downside of eating out is that it would require packing the gear which takes about ten minutes. Many parks also have toilets. A co-working buddy could watch your gear while you are away.
For the ergonomic setup I use a portable table and a portable chair of regular height. It is made by the company Roll-a-Table.
The independently adjustable legs of the Roll-a-Table are indispensable to adjust to the varied terrain so as to have a level surface. Many parks have benches and tables which are also of a regular height. However, the ability to setup a working spot just about anywhere unlocks new levels of freedom. It enables finding a nicer view, an appropriate shade, angle to the sun, and an opportunity to try new secluded places.
Another problem is cold hands while typing. Unless it’s hot, the fingers get cold when the body is not moving and blood is not circulating. One way to fix this is to get up once an a while and to do some exercise. Another way is to dress warm, including wearing a warm hat. I bring a thermos with hot tea.
To keep my fingers warm in the midst of 16 degrees Celsius weather, I also wear fingerless gloves. A simple way to make these, is to cut off the tips of cheap cotton gloves.
For the electrical power I use a lithium-based 240 watt-hour AC generator which weighs close to three kilograms.
I picked this device because the AC power outlet allows me to plugin a laptop of any model. It also promised many hours of power, and the promise holds up in practice. It keeps my laptop and the cellular phone at 100% charge for about seven hours. After that, I can still use my laptop’s built-in battery that would take me safely through two more hours. It’s important to note that the cellular phone is actively transmitting to enable the internet connection, and that uses a lot of power. The portable battery is recharged overnight.
For shading the laptop from the sun I use photographer’s gear by the company Think Tank. It’s a kind of shading tent, and you can find it on Amazon under “Photo Pixel Sunscreen V 2.0 Anti Glare Screen Hood.” This shading tent allows photographers to shoot photos outdoors and then to review them immediately.
A disadvantage of this shading tent is that the user must lean into it due to the downward slope of the cover top. This is not ideal ergonomically. However, by placing it on a laptop raiser, which is itself angled the opposite direction, I get the overall configuration to be level.
Particularly, I am using the IKEA Brada portable laptop support in order to raise the laptop to the eye level,. There are many devices for raising laptops, but this design allows to slide a keyboard under it, which in turn allows me to bring the laptop closer to me.
The raiser is sloping and I have placed the incline away from me. Due to this slope, the shading tent and the laptop has a tendency of sliding down and falling backward. To prevent this, I have tied the shading tent to the raiser. This is accomplished by using the side openings in the shading tent, designed to plug cables.
The portable keyboard in the photo is Microsoft Sculpt ergonomic keyboard. Without the raiser, when the laptop is flat on the table, I position the portable keyboard on top of the laptop’s keyboard. The portable keyboard is perfectly sized and bent so as to not touch the keys of the MacBook’s keyboard. This way too, the laptop’s screen remains close to me.
All this gear fits on a city rental bicycle. A little exercise is a good way to start the work day, and a bicycle removes the need to pay for a full day of car parking.
The photo below shows a rental bike in my city. The table and the chair fits into the front basket on the bike. Since the bike doesn’t have storage panniers, I carry a backpack on my back, and hang another bag on the bike’s handlebar. This works for short distances, but for longer distances a bicycle with a cargo rack and paneers would serve better.
Sometimes I walk instead. In that case, I lug all the gear using a wagon cart. When driving to the destination of choice, I use the wagon for the last mile.
Today it started to rain, a problem I haven’t yet considered. I quickly packed up and headed home. The solution against rain is a “rain fly,” a thin tarpaulin that comes with hooks to be stretched between trees or poles in a form of a canopy. I have ordered the product “YUEDGE Portable Lightweight Waterproof Rain Tarp” which weighs half a pound. Furthermore, the rain fly may remove glare or the need for the laptop shading tent altogether.
To avoid dependence on trees to stretch the canopy, I plan to use tarp poles. The company “Green Elephant” makes lightweight telescoping poles. Each weighs a pound, and in a collapsed form, their length is 80cm. Thus, they can be carried inside the Roll-a-Table.
The laptop shading tent makes the screen visible, but the screen acts as a mirror, reflecting me. The effect is pronounced when the screen is showing dark colors, and is reduced to a tolerable level when the screen shows light colors. I have ordered GUNNAR sun glasses, which should reduce remaining glare.
What’s in the future? Ayn Rand once said that civilization is the progress towards privacy. With the advances of technology, man can do ever more tasks in the privacy of his own domain, without the need to cooperate on those tasks with others. When it comes to work, this means he would be more of an independent entrepreneur, dealing with others “corp-to-corp”. Like writers and photographers, he will be able to do his work anywhere his inspiration takes him.
Read next my follow up article: The Tree Table Workstation
Boris Reitman is an intellectual activist in Vancouver, Canada.