Normally, the idea of powered exoskeletons evokes images of futuristic super soldiers, given massive boosts of strength and agility thanks to their motorized outerwear. That's definitely not the story for Genworth's R70i Aging Suit. The exoskeleton, which is being showcased at CES, is designed to make those wearing it feel as if they've aged 40 years. The suit adds on weight, restricts movement, and simulates a number of age-related conditions to give users a feel for the types of medical issues they might encounter as they grow older.
Fortunately for me, I got to try it on.
After spending 15 minutes getting strapped into the suit, I was taken through a demonstration of all the ailments the exoskeleton can replicate. The first group of disorders all revolved around eyesight. A VR-type headset was fitted over my eyes, and a Genworth representative showed me what would happen if I developed conditions like macular degeneration, cataracts, or glaucoma. The headset blurred and distorted the images I was seeing to coordinate with each issue. As one might expected, the changes were unpleasant.
It was awkward
Once I was sufficiently thankful for my 20/20 vision, I was walked through all the hearing problems I might develop someday. Speakers fitted over my ears mimicked what the world would sound like if I had a condition called aphasia; it makes you feel as if everything you say is echoed back to you. The result was me slurring my speech as I tried to overcome the echo. It was awkward.
The experience wrapped with a demonstration of how mobility becomes limited during old age. I was dragged onto a treadmill, and then the suit's operator added resistance to the motors surrounding my arms and legs. I now had rheumatoid arthritis. I nearly fell off the machine trying to lift just one leg up. Even when my limbs were unrestricted again, I still had an extra 40 pounds weighing me down from the suit itself — a reminder that most people generally gain weight when they grow older.
Throughout the presentation, the Genworth representative kept reminding me that this all wasn't meant to scare me. The goal was to raise awareness for these age-related conditions, so I could keep an eye out for their alarming symptoms in the future. That's certainly something I'm going to do now. And I do have a newfound appreciation for those suffering from these health issues. But I won't lie; it was still pretty scary. I think the next time I don an exosuit, I'll go for one that turns me into a super solider.