All you have to do is live long enough. I Wore a Suit Designed to Make Me Feel Like an Old Person
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.They should to have a setting where little pieces of crumpled cellophane (is there such a thing as cellophane anymore) randomly fly in front of your eyes to simulate floaters. And a blurry yellow filter to mimic cataracts.
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.It needs like hammers to whack random joints occasionally to simulate the odd assortment of pains from arthritis and other age related ailments.
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).Gack! Insurance salesman!
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.’”Hell with creepy! Faster, faster!
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.