Weighed down, fumbling through the world with tunnel vision, unable to shake the ringing in my ears, I aged about 50 years in five minutes at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
On Jan. 5, insurance company Genworth Financial unveiled a robotic exo-suit that shows wearers just what it feels like to be old.
The R70i was created by design firm Applied Minds, whose co-founder, Bran Ferren is the former president of Disney’s Imagineers. To try it out, you have to put on something that feels a lot like a wetsuit—the technicians backstage told me it’s necessary because “you’re going to sweat.” You’re then strapped tightly into the exo-suit, which weighs more than it looks like it does.
The system uses an Oculus virtual reality headset and giant headphones to block out your natural vision and hearing, and replace them with distorted versions of reality. Before I even made it to the demonstration area with Ferren, I was not entirely in control of my movements. A “spotter” helped me across the convention center floor.
Ferren had me stand still—one of the few things I could still do in this suit—and asked what I could see. Using a wireless system connected to the suit, he slowly reduced my field of vision, blurring out the sides, then the middle, and then showing me what it felt like to have cataracts.
He did the same for my hearing, first giving me tinnitus—which, thanks to the unending parade of slot machines, demo booths and taxis in Las Vegas, I’m not entirely sure has actually gone away—then slowing down and repeating the audio that I was hearing in the headphones, making it difficult to even recite the words to “Mary had a little lamb.”
Then the real tests came. Ferren put me on a treadmill, asking me to walk at a slow pace. It was difficult, but I could keep it up for a while. A monitor broadcast my heart rate on a screen next to me for all to see. Then Ferren gave me the legs of a 100-year-old, slowing me down as if I were walking through waist-high mud. My heart rate spiked.
He changed the settings to show me how difficult it is walk with a damaged hip, and I found myself careening to the side of the treadmill. Thankfully, the torture of aging ended there and I was returned to my semi-youthful state. Ferren asked how I felt, and I told him I now fear getting old.
“The alternative is far worse,” he responded.
The aim of the suit, says Ferren, is to show people that we need to pay greater attention to the effects of aging on those close to us. It’s difficult to empathize with pain you can’t see, or debilitations that aren’t readily apparent. The R70i could also theoretically be used for the opposite result, he said: To return mobility and senses to the elderly.
In countries like Japan, where over a quarter of the population is older than 65, there’s a great need to build systems that guarantee care for the elderly. Multiple Japanese companies are working on exo-suits to improve the human body, so it may not be long before Ferren’s claim becomes a reality. But hopefully, the day our clothes give us superhuman robotic strength, they won’t make us look like extras from Tron.
*This post has been updated with a video.