We're all going to die one day. This much is indisputable. The absolute best-case scenario is that it takes nature a bit longer to get the job done. While we might all be aware of this on some level, getting people—particularly those in the throes of their pink, invincible youth—to recognize it is a lot harder than you'd think. But what if there were a way to know how truly shitty it feels to get old, before you actually get old?
The Genworth R70i Aging Experience exoskeleton, sponsored by the Genworth long-term care insurance company, is trying to do just that, for some reason. The purpose of the suit, which I took for a test drive at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado last week, is "to help people step into their future selves and directly experience the physical effects associated with aging." At about 8,000 feet above sea level, Aspen was a pretty good setting for such a conceit—the thin air and steep hills already had me feeling winded and tired everywhere I went.The suit was designed by Bran Ferren and his team at Applied Minds, a company that provides technology- and design-consulting services to the likes of General Motors, Intel, and Northrop Grunman. Ferren himself is the former president of research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering and designed many of the Disney theme-park rides. He's also won a couple of Academy Awards for his technical work on films, headed up concert visual effects for the likes of Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney, and is an inventor who, among many, many other things, patented the "pinch-to-zoom" technology that we all use every day of our lives. He's essentially a brilliant mad scientist who doubles as the grandfather you wish you had.
My journey into old age began with two Applied Mind engineers affixing a heart rate monitor, leg and arm motors, camera goggles, headphones, and other assorted technical hardware that would help me, in theory, understand the effects of long-term aging. The fact that the engineers setting me up in the suit worked on special effects for a lengthy catalog of films like Jurassic Park 3, Transformers, and Kill Bill certainly added to the sensation that I was a superhero being fitted in my armor. It does look sort of like a mix between something out of Tron and Iron Man, but the intent is the exact opposite: to make you weak, slow, tired, and confused.
Superhero appearances aside, once I was lowered from the harness connecting me to the wall—the backpack containing all of the computing power of the suit is about 40 pounds—I was reminded more of Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," in which the titular hero is equipped with weights to counteract his unfair strength advantage over others. This was an artificial handicap, and to be honest it was pretty stressful. I asked the engineers whether there was any chance of the motors and leg braces snapping my legs in half. They assured me there was little chance of that happening.The fact that this suit, at a cost of, well, they wouldn't say how much, but it certainly couldn't have been cheap, was being underwritten by an insurance company seemed a bit on the nose. In a way it's the world's most elaborately designed piece of branded content, but the discussion they're trying to generate with the suit, I would soon learn, is worth having.Earlier that day, during the public presentation, Ferren was joined by Genworth's Janice Luvera and Angela Bassett, the latter of whom is one of a number of celebrities the company has enlisted to help them spread the word about aging."The good news is that people are living longer," Luvera said. "The bad news is that they're not prepared for it. What people think about how they're going to age and how they actually do—there's a gap there."There will be 10,000 boomers turning 65 every day for the next 19 years," she went on. "We believe it's not just an issue for older people anymore, but for society. How are we going to take care of this aging population?"
"Having a difficult conversation is needed," Bassett added. "Don't be afraid of it, don't wait until it's too late. It's easier to make clearheaded decisions ahead of time."If that all sounds boring to you, that kind of explains why this suit is necessary. It's a pretty tall order to get young people to plan for next week, never mind decades down the line. I'm in my late 30s and don't really give much thought to any of this stuff, even when thinking about my parents. The suit at least provides a point of entry.
In designing the suit, Ferren said he asked himself, "How can we allow someone to see what it's like to get older, and do it in minutes rather than decades? What tech can we use having to do with vision, hearing, and mobility?"The result, a couple years of work from a team of 35 people, was the R70i."As you get older you get fat," Ferren said. "At the same time, a cruel fate of life is your muscles get weaker, your joints start failing, you get stiff." The suit then "shows what it's like to get yourself up in the morning and walk around."I learned what he meant later when I took my first steps in the R70i. Before I even made it out of the dressing room I was sweating, unsure of my body. I felt like I could fall over at any time, and I needed to lean on someone else to help me move. I even smelled weird, musty, and gross from the jumpsuit, which, they told me, was only damp because it had been recently washed.
The suit simulates the aging experience in a variety of ways. The goggles alone can replicate 100 different defects, from glaucoma, to macular degeneration, to cataracts. For cataracts, for example, you'll see an image inside the goggles of yourself walking through a pleasant woods, but then slowly it's whited out and glossy. For hearing-related defects such as tinnitus, a persistent, high-pitched tone is amplified until it dominates your consciousness, although as someone who's spent so much of my stupid life at concerts without earplugs, this was something I was already well prepared for.
"If you're wondering why older people withdraw from social interactions, this is why," Ferren said. It's hard to hear people in conversation in crowded parties and restaurants, you might not be able to see someone across the room, or it just might be embarrassing to have everyone watching you walk slowly from place to place.Worst of all the effects was the simulation of a disorder called aphasia, often occurring after a stroke, in which the parts of the brain associated with language are damaged. The result is choppy, or nonfluent speech. To recreate this, those wearing the suit were asked to recite a simple nursery rhyme like "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The speech was then delayed and broadcast back into the headset, making it almost impossible to speak clearly. Like many of the conditions it emulates, it's not an exact match for the symptoms, but close enough to get the point across.
Just like that the experience for me transformed from a superhero training montage into a body-horror nightmare. Black squiggly lines meant to represent floaters (sort of cobwebs in your field of vision), crawled in front of me like little wriggling worms. Could I see them? I was asked. "Yes. They're going to eat my brain," I said.I was asked to walk on a treadmill. First one, then both of my legs were handicapped by the pressurized motors. Now I was walking with a limp. It was an intense effort just to stay upright.When the pressure was turned down, it was like being healed rapidly. The effects of aging sloughed off like a snakeskin. Why don't Ferren and his compatriots get to work on something like that? Something that simulates the reversal of aging for IRL old people?Ferren was asked just that, why they'd bother to go to all the trouble to design a suit to make people feel old when we're all going to get there anyway."It's the same technology that, moving forward in the future, is what's going to liberate people," he said. Some day they'll be able to return muscle strength that is gone. "It's the same thing as the next generation of hearing aids, and visual systems with implants to visual cortex, so people who have lost sight can have it replaced."
Most of us probably can't envision a time in which such inconveniences will become part of our daily lives, even if we logically know it's coming. Perhaps that's because we don't have any idea what it's like to actually feel old. We can see it in other people, but until you've experienced it yourself, you'll never really understand.When it was over I was relieved. Putting on my skinny jeans and lacing up my boots back in the dressing room took almost as long as it did to get the suit on in the first place. This is just the opposite, I thought: a costume I still wear to simulate what it's like to feel young. For now I'm lucky to have the ability to move in the other direction, but it won't last forever.Follow Luke on Twitter.
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