This Is What It’s Like To Test-Drive A Bionic Exoskeleton

Meet R70i, the bionic exoskeleton that drains away your super powers to help you empathize with the elderly

Credit: Giovanni Darkins//Genworth
Jan 09, 2016 at 7:11 AM ET

R70i looks like the blue, robotic love child of C-3PO and Iron Man. Glowing lights line the bionic exoskeleton’s joints, which bend only at odd angles, and a chest plate gives the entire outfit a Superman vibe.

But far from bestowing its wearers with superpowers, this bionic exoskeleton mimics the aging process, to help raise awareness and empathy for the elderly.

When I strapped into Genworth’s R70i Aging Experience at CES 2016, an enormous consumer technology conference in Las Vegas, my joints froze with arthritis, my eyes clouded with glaucoma and my ears rang with tinnitus. For an uncomfortable twenty minutes or so, I experienced the isolation and frustration of struggling to move and communicate and, in the process, gained incredible insight into the plight of the elderly and disabled.

“What we really hope is that there’s a conversation to be had,” says Candace Hammer of Applied Minds LLC, the company that partnered with Genworth to create the suit. “We hope the empathy angle makes people compassionate about their loved ones who are going through [the aging process].”

It’s a tall order, and the robotic suit that accomplishes this feat is quite immersive. The exoskeleton itself weighs about 40 pounds—a figure that its creators say more-or-less mimics the weight gain and muscle loss of old age. But that’s the easy part. With the flick of a switch, the suit can restrict your motion in eight major limb joints, which makes moving around uncomfortable.

It gets worse. The suit’s eyewear displays a real-time “augmented reality” (which occasionally freezes up, adding to the disorientation) and it can simulate the debilitating effects of glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts and floaters. Meanwhile, signals sent to the noise-cancelling headphones simulate ringing of the ears and hearing loss, as well as the neurological conditon aphasia, a form of speech loss. The exoskeleton butchers your senses and makes everyday tasks—from communicating to walking—impossible.

The goal, of course, is to offer insight into the aging process, and teach us to have some empathy for the elderly. With 75 million baby boomers reaching retirement, and more than 70 percent of Americans over the age of 65 requiring long-term care, a little empathy could go a long way. For instance, the exhibitors noted that putting and elderly person with hearing loss at the end of a dinner table is unfair; it’s hard enough for him or her to communicate, even under the best conditions. And inviting your grandparents for a long walk on the beach might not be such a great idea if they have arthritis.

In the exoskeleton, it’s easy to understand the strong connection between disabilities and isolation. When the machine blocked my hearing and garbled my speech, it wasn’t just difficult to carry on a conversation—it was easier to stay silent. When the robot locked up my legs and stooped my back, it wasn’t just unpleasant to go on a short walk—it was a hassle to put one foot in front of the other.

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I kept asking myself how someone with these disabilities would find the willpower to even get out of bed in the morning. This realization instantly made the “old hermit” paradigm feel insulting. How many older adults simply prefer to be alone because of the effort and pain associated with getting up and going out to see their friends?

“That’s the social isolation we’re talking about,” says Segun Oduolowu, also with Applied Minds LLC. “That’s someone being at the end of a dinner table, trying to have a conversation with their family, feeling like they can’t, and [so] keeping quiet.”

“We’re trying to change that.”