I Wore a Suit Designed to Make Me Feel Like an Old Person

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Bran Ferren explains the suit's mechanisms.Photo: Patrick MacLeod

I’m 23, but right now I feel about 60. I’m standing on a small stage in a back room of the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, my body encased in several pounds of plastic and sophisticated computer and processing equipment. The extra weight belted to my back and hips is designed to imitate the 25 percent increase in body mass I’ll accrue in my 60s and 70s, and the restraints on my extremities mimic the loss of muscle tone.

The heart-rate monitor clipped to my left forefinger keeps slipping — all these extra pounds are making me sweat. A heavy helmet weighs down my head. Attached to the helmet are headphones, which muffle all surrounding sound, and a pair of goggles with the futuristic look of a VR headset.

The goggles blur everything in front of me, but as Bran Ferren, the chief creative officer of Applied Minds and the engineer behind the suit I’m wearing, turns a remote dial, my vision gets even worse. “What do you see now?” Ferren asks as the dark edges of my visual field draw further and further inward, leaving just a tiny hole to see through. “Claustrophobia,” I say.

“This is commonly referred to as tunnel vision,” he says. “It’s the effect of end-stage glaucoma, where an increase in pressure inside your eye causes damage to the retina. Once these effects happen they’re not reversible, which is why early detection is particularly important.”

After restoring my vision, a pair of volunteers — one of whom had strapped me into the suit a few minutes earlier — leads me over to a treadmill. One of them switches it on and I begin to walk, albeit jerkily. “Let’s drop the muscle strength in your legs,” Ferren says. My legs grow heavier until they’re difficult to lift. Then he turns a dial to simulate removing the cartilage in my left hip. The suit’s left leg stiffens, forcing me to double over and hobble along on the treadmill like my 74-year-old grandmother. A cane would be nice, I think.

I’d come to New Jersey to check out the Genworth R70i Aging Experience, also known as the suit I was wearing. The suit is the result of a collaboration between Genworth Financial Inc., an insurance company that sells long-term-care insurance policies, and Ferren, to whom Genworth reached out when it decided it wanted to create something that would mimic how customers will feel as they age, to better prepare them for the future (and, you know, to help the company sell them insurance).

It made its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and will be at Liberty Science Center until April 10. The goal, Ferren explained, is to bring the suit around to as many areas of the country as possible.

Ferren, who is 62 and had his hip replaced five weeks ago, wants to spread awareness about the effects of aging — especially among younger populations. “This stuff happens,” he said. “And you don’t plan for it, and you’re not expecting it. The purpose of this is really to start a different type of discussion about aging. We find this is a topic people don’t want to talk about.”

This suit is the first of its kind. It uses “digital signal processors” to relay auditory and visual information to the wearer, and those signals can be tweaked to mimic certain effects of aging. Just by pressing a few buttons, the suit’s operator can “give” the wearer cataracts, glaucoma, or tinnitus. And unlike typical motorized exoskeletons, which enhance people’s ability to do certain things and may turn construction workers or military personnel superhuman in the not-too-distant future (the web is already full of cool prototype videos of these machines), the Genworth suit was designed for the sole purpose of making it harder to move around and complete physical tasks. Each joint on the suit contains a microcontroller and a ball-and-socket mechanism — the controller tells the ball-and-socket mechanism how to act in certain pre-programmed situations, allowing it to apply load and stiffness to represent things like osteoporosis, joint pain, and muscle loss.

Ferren adjusts the suit's controls.Photo: Patrick MacLeod

To accurately portray these conditions, Ferren talked to experts in vision, hearing, and musculoskeletal systems, as well as people who actually have the conditions the suit is meant to simulate. “This is not a science experiment,” he said. “We’re not trying to do anything quantitative. The question was, could we give people the impression of what it’s like to age? We didn’t want to get spun up in details, but we did want to be technically accurate enough so that what we’re doing is credible.”

According to Ferren, educating people on the effects of aging is increasingly important as the baby-boomer generation gets older and older, putting more strain on end-of-life-care infrastructure. In 2008 the federal government spent an average of $26,355 on each person 65 or older — that’s about $1.2 trillion. That number has nearly quadrupled in the last 50 years, and it’s bound to climb as the country’s population of elderly people grows.

“It’s a societal problem, it’s an economic problem, and it’s something we really need to deal with,” Ferren said. “But denial is alive and well in most people. Who wants to think you might be a burden on your friends and family? Who wants to think you might lose your job? There are a hundred unfortunate reasons why this isn’t a big topic of conversation. The fact is, we don’t talk about unpleasant things until something happens that puts it in the public’s face in a way that causes them to confront it.”

Ideally, Ferren would like to see the technology in the prototype I wore used in exactly the opposite way: to counteract the effects of aging. His vision of the future is one in which exoskeletons aren’t just for construction workers or soldiers but for anyone (or anyone who can afford one), and he imagines elderly people will wear motorized exoskeletons small enough to fit under their clothes. Powered with the same types of batteries used in cell phones, these suits will lend strength and stability to tired limbs, preventing falls and making day-to-day tasks easier. “This is a crude starting prototype,” he said of his own invention. “It’s as if you were in Thomas Edison’s laboratory at the dawn of electric light and people said, ‘Someday cities will be lit with this.’”

It’s both comforting and creepy to imagine my future self, flesh turned soft and heavy and muscles wasting away, encased in a motorized exoskeleton that’ll make me feel 23 again. In some ways, it feels like cheating. But, as Ferren tells me, he stopped aging emotionally at 33 — everything after that was just frustrating. Old people don’t feel old, so maybe they deserve a body that doesn’t, either.