Wearable tech is often geared toward the super-fit or the able-bodied, whether it’s tracking intense activities or your basic daily step count, but one company in Silicon Valley is focusing instead on building a “smart” suit for the aging population.
Superflex, a Menlo Park, California-based startup that’s just coming out of stealth mode, says it’s working on sensor-equipped, computer-controlled clothing for senior citizens who have trouble with mobility. The suit’s sensors are supposed to be able to track the posture and movement of the body, and rapidly process data to send a motor “assist” when the wearer is leaning forward in a chair, getting ready to stand up, or even starting to raise their arms above their head.
The technology was originally developed at SRI International as part of a program to reduce injuries in soldiers carrying heavy loads, and was recently spun off as its own consumer-focused company.
“We’re calling it ‘intelligent wearable strength,’” said Rich Mahoney, Superflex’s co-founder chief executive officer, in an interview with The Verge. Mahoney, who worked as the head of robotics at SRI International for seven years prior to Superflex, says the team behind the power suit is comprised of both robotics experts and textile and fashion designers. “We’re now identifying more as a clothing innovation company, even though our foundation is in robotics,” Mahoney said.
Today Superflex also said that it raised nearly $10 million in a Series A funding round led by Japanese venture capital firm Global Brain. While Mahoney’s first goal is to address the US market, where the 65-and-older population is expected to nearly double from 48 million to 88 million in the next three decades, Superflex also sees a big opportunity in Japan, where people over 65 make up a quarter of the country’s population.
Before you get too excited about an Iron Man future though, or think you’ve found the perfect gift for grandma: Superflex’s robot suits won’t ship until at least 2018, and we weren’t able to even see a working prototype of the suit. Mahoney stressed that Superflex is still in its earliest conceptual stages, and admitted that some important elements of the design — like where rechargeable batteries will go in the electric suit, and how long they’ll last for — are still to be determined.
The idea of marrying technology with clothing to address the challenges of the disabled or overburdened is not a completely new idea, either. Earlier this year Harvard University said it was collaborating with a company called ReWork Robotics to develop a suit that would help with lower-limb disabilities. My Verge colleague Loren Grush has also braved an exoskeleton that simulates age-related conditions like macular degeneration and cataracts. Honda has been working on a Walking Assist Device project for the elderly since 2008, and Panasonic is said to be working on exoskeleton suits that would help industrial workers lift heavy objects.
And introducing a bunch of new technology to an aging population also brings up questions around how user-friendly some of these suits will be. Superflex’s Mahoney said the company expects that the powered clothing will be fully standalone, without requiring the wearer to interact with any kind of external computer or mobile app, but that again, the full design and specs of the product haven’t been determined yet.