For a little while on a recent weekday afternoon, my body aged about 40 years. The arthritis in my fingers made it nearly impossible to make a fist, let alone pick up a pen, without grimacing in pain. I could only walk up the stairs by shuffling sideways. The din of the crowd was so loud that I could barely hear; as I result, I shouted my responses in casual conversation. And the macular degeneration in my eyes clouded my vision.
I was wearing pieces of the R70 aging suit, a full body suit and helmet commissioned by Genworth, a company that provides life- and long-term care insurance. The suit, set to debut to the public at the upcoming Social Innovation Summit in the San Francisco Bay Area, provides a preview of what it’s like to grow old by simulating normal aging along with common conditions like arthritis and vision loss.
The suit was designed through a collaboration between Genworth, the makeup and creature effects studios Spectral Motion, and Edward Schneider, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California.
First, Genworth hired a costume designer to sketch out a design. Then Schneider brought the design–which originally resembled something straight out of Tron–to Spectral Motion, so they could discuss what aspects of aging would be possible to replicate in a suit. The assignment was a novel one for the studio, which usually creates flexible designs for people who need to move around a lot, like dancers and stuntmen.
“Our area of focus has always been to try to make suits to help people move as much as possible. That actually puts us in the position of knowing quite accurately what does impede movement,” explains Spectral Motion president and creative director Mike Elizalde.
To mimic the muscle loss that occurs with aging, this meant inserting the very heavy metal tungsten into the suit’s gloves and boots. Stiffness in the suit around the knees, elbows, and knuckles mimics arthritis by making it hard to bend, while an internal harness moves the wearer’s entire posture forward, making it impossible to truly stand upright.
In the helmet, an audio system blasts the sounds of a large crowd, so wearers can experience what it’s like to not be able to hear people talking directly in front of them. A series of mechanically operated lenses (much like what you’d find at an opthamologist’s office) mimic different eye diseases, including cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.
There are actually two versions of the suit–one designed for men, and one for women. Each was modeled on the body cast of a famous actor, though Spectral Motion wouldn’t say who.
My experience with the R70 seemed at times to be like an extreme version of aging; I could certainly imagine my eyes and hearing abilities deteriorating in the way that the suit suggested, but it was nearly impossible to use any fine motor skills while wearing the clunky gloves. Schneider says that in reality, the suit replicates a fairly normal aging experience. (The suit isn’t meant to mimic a specific age, just what it’s like to be old).
“They’ve really done a spectacular job replicating the problems I have and my peers have,” he says. The suit certainly does a better job than the makeshift props (glasses, gloves, earplugs) that he uses in his Introduction to Gerontology class to help students understand aging.
Genworth is planning to take the R70 on a countrywide tour so that the public can experience it (and presumably be persuaded to buy insurance); the company is also lending the suit to its customer service representatives so they can understand what their customers go through.