Normally, when you read about the latest robotic exoskeleton, it’s usually something that makes you stronger, faster, or better in some way. But oddly enough, the exoseketon that I tried out at CES did absolutely none of those things. In fact, it did the exact opposite. Instead of making me stronger or faster, it actually made me weaker, slower, and less coordinated. The R70i, as its called, is designed to make you feel like an elderly person.
That probably doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun — and it isn’t — but the tech that makes it all possible is nothing short of amazing. It’s a symphony of different technologies all working in concert to make you feel like a crotchety old fart.
The R70i helps you understand the struggles of senior citizens — and that’s pretty damn incredible.
Let’s start with the frame. Much like other exoskeletons you may or may not have seen, the main body of the R70i consists of a series of rigid metal bars connected by a series of motorized joints. In any other exoskeleton, these motors would be used to augment or enhance your movements, but in the case of the R70i, they’re programmed resist and restrict you. And it’s all adjustable, too. With the press of a button, the resistance settings can be tweaked — letting you experience arthritis and muscle loss, but also what it feels like to walk around after a hip replacement (which totally sucks, by the way).
And that’s just the beginning. The suit also sports a pair of headphones that can screw up your hearing. In addition to tight passive noise cancellation that blocks out most incoming sound, the headset also employs a set of microphones to pick up that same sound that was blocked out. These sounds are then run through a digital signal processor before they’re funneled back to your ears, which allows the suit to mess with the sound before it reaches your eardrums. By adjusting the audio signal, the suit can simulate hearing loss, tinnitus, or even aphasia — an affliction that makes it difficult to speak and form words.
You wear a similar apparatus over your eyes, too. The suit is equipped with a set of custom built augmented reality goggles that screw with your vision. These have cameras on the front to capture live video of what you’re looking at, which is then displayed (in real time) on a screen that sits directly in front of your eyes. This allows you to see the world as you normally would, but again, because the goggles act as an intermediary between the world and your eyeballs, it’s possible to adjust how and what you see. It can give you tunnel vision like you have glaucoma, put a big blind spot in the middle of your field of view like you’ve suddenly experienced macular degeneration, or even make your vision cloudy like you’ve got cataracts.
Individually, these technological tricks are disorienting, but when you experience all of them at once, it’s downright debilitating. Genworth actually wouldn’t let me walk around without a pair of spotters following close behind, because the suit is so overwhelming that it’s not unusual for people to fall over while wearing it. Luckily I didn’t take any tumbles during the demo, but it took a lot of effort to prevent that from happening. After a virtual walk on the beach with the suit in full effect, my legs were so wobbly it was hard to stand up. For the first time, I truly understood why some old folks use walkers and canes.
And really, that was the whole point of this exercise.
The R70i can’t make you stronger or faster, but it can instill you with a certain measure of empathy and understanding for the struggles of senior citizens — and that’s pretty damn incredible. They say you don’t know a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and its true. After a 30 minute demo, I learned what it feels like to be 70, and now I won’t take my youth for granted ever again.