The Air Mattress on the Plane Guy, and the Future of Comfort

by | Aug 8, 2019 | Future of Transportation

I recently returned from a speaking engagement in South Korea, and on my trans-pacific flights between San Francisco and Seoul I tried something new – an air mattress.

I had my doubts at first, but it turned out to be a total game changer!

Since I’m larger than most people, comfort has been an elusive commodity on the 10-14 hour flights I often find myself on. Even though I’m flying business class with seats that lay flat, after a few hours virtually every seat causes unusual pain points to develop.

The air mattress I took along was a Polarmile Ultralight Sleeping Pad that fits into a double-fist sized carrying case, but inflated to fit well on the United 787 that I was a passenger on.

Admittedly, I was rather self-conscious about blowing up an air mattress onboard, thinking the whole world was watching “as I prepared my campsite” on a crowded plane.

But that wasn’t the case. No one noticed, and more importantly, no one cared.

The online description for the Polarmile says it only requires 10-15 breaths to inflate, but I found it to be more in the 75-80-breath range. No, I wasn’t trying to maximize my lung capacity with each breath, but I do think they understated it a bit.

I also didn’t want it to be at full capacity. I wasn’t looking for a firm, rigid air mattress, but something that would mold to the seat as I adjusted it in various states of recline. So, close to full, but not full.

Since United already provided a blanket-like mattress pad for the seat, I placed that over the top of the air mattress to add another layer between the plastic and my skin.

Over the years I’ve tried many things to make the trips easier, and to be honest, very few of them worked. So my expectations were rather low.

I’ve found that when I start with low expectations, virtually any progress seems like a huge victory. But this air mattress experiment, not only was it a radical improvement, it continued to impress me flying both ways over the duration of the entire trip.

So why is this important?

It’s quite simple. Comfort has shifted from a “good enough” item on a checklist to a topic of elite cocktail party discussions and become an essential decider of brand value.

The Future of Comfort

The reason an air mattress adds comfort is because it diffuses natural pressure points over a broader section of the body. Distributed pressure means less chance of developing those annoying points of pain.

As we think through the idea of comfort, the three places where the human body comes into contact with the physical world most are the beds we sleep in, the shoes that we walk in, and the chairs we sit in.

Each of these primary contact areas has long been the center of our attention as we are always looking for a better solution.

Moving forward, we will expand our use of digital products, adding additional sensors to our body, greatly improving our ability to spot problem areas before they develop.

Not only will we have the ability to zero in on the precise location of the problem, but also the tools to uncover the root cause and solutions to remedy them.

Yet, comfort involves far more than physical contact. If our space is too humid, too dry, too noisy, too bright, too dark, filled with vibrations, offensive odors, or changing air pressure, our overall comfort changes significantly.

This becomes an increasingly important topic when we study the evolving landscape of comfort.

Very soon car companies will be competing with airlines for short and medium haul passengers.

Competing for Comfort

Very soon, traveling in an autonomous car will become a viable option. In many cases it will be preferable to flying in a plane to short-range destinations.

Rather than wading through the hassle of scheduling a flight, driving to the airport, dealing with baggage and security, waiting to board, crowding into tiny airline seats, enduring the flight itself, and finding transportation once you arrive, it’ll only take a few minutes to have a driverless car out front and you can ride comfortably for the next 6-10 hours, working on projects, watching movies, playing video games, or just sleeping as you make your way to your destination.

Suddenly airlines will be facing a new form of competition they never saw coming.

As an industry, they will have to eliminate many “layers of discomfort” before they can effectively compete with the cross-country autonomous cars of the future. And seating is only part of the equation.

If we expand our horizons, space tourism and traveling to other planets may not be far off, and the idea of comfort takes on a whole new dimension. Stresses on the human body and duration of travel will extend far beyond anything most of us have confronted so far.

Autonomous Vehicles will take the Lead

Once you are able to summon a vehicle to take you across town, the key differentiators will be comfort, cleanliness, and functionality. The relationship we have with our vehicles becomes a complicated equation, far different for every user:

  • Can I wear a suit or fancy dress without worrying about some kid having smeared chocolate on the seats?
  • Is it possible to dim the windows so I can sleep?
  • Are there spaces for a computer, purse, briefcase, or small tote?
  • If I bought a few things at my last stop, will they fit into the trunk? Can I hang onto this car so I don’t have to bring all my bags with me?
  • Is there a fold out desk where I can do some serious work?
  • When I’m on a Skype or Zoom call, how stable will my connection be, and how much road noise will I hear?
  • If I have my kid(s) with me, are there child seats built in? Are there tray tables so they can play with toys, eat food, or just sleep.
  • Will the car connect to the music on my smartphone? Can I watch videos or play games?
  • Were there dogs, cats, or some other animals that I may be allergic to in this car before me?
  • How comfortable will this car be on a 10-12 hour trip?
  • Are there extra charges for dropping off the car in a different city?
  • Was the last passenger smoking, vaping, sweaty, or suffering from some contagious disease?
  • Can I meet with more than one person inside the vehicle as we’re driving around?
  • Will it be possible to stand up, do exercises, or engage in some kind of workout while I’m traveling?

Over the coming months our thinking about autonomous cars will dramatically change.

Final Thoughts

Every person views transportation through a different lens. Blowing up an air mattress may have solved one problem, but it only scratches the surface of complex comfort issues that will arise as we move into a future with far more shared use options.

Future contact surfaces will have expansion cells that interact with sensors on our body. We will develop complex interfaces that share vast amounts of information with virtually every surface we come into contact with.

So far we’ve done a poor job of molding the world to mesh with us, the human users. Over the coming years, this will become the primary focus of design thinking.

The examples listed above were intended to spark your imagination, and only represent a drop in the bucket of what’s truly possible. Please let us know other ideas come to mind as you read this. I think we all want to know.

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