I like to joke that I'm technically 33 years old, but on the inside I'm 65. I'm less inclined to make that joke after spending 20 minutes or so inside Genworth's "Aging Experience" exoskeleton. The R70i, which apparently is a barely coded reference to the fact that 70 percent of Americans will need some sort of long term care as they age, is a full body simulator that lets you experience what its like to lose your sight, hearing and even range of motion as the effects of aging creep in.
I arrived at the booth 15 minutes before showtime, as instructed, and they strapped me in. First I put on the blue "under suit." Then I was lashed to the 40 pound exoskeleton, with its four pairs of motorized joints that can simulate arthritis and muscle loss. I'm not going to lie, even with the suit set to offer a full range of uninhibited motion it was difficult to move. Not impossible, but certainly quite clumsy.
The next part of the experience was a helmet that was home to a pair of headphones and an Oculus Rift that allowed you to experience hearing and vision loss. Now, tinnitus isn't something foreign to most people. If you've ever stood to close to the speakers at a concert you've probably experienced the high-pitched whine that typifies the condition. But, rather than being a temporary affliction, it can be permanent.
The joints on the suit can be cranked up to add resistance at different points. Simple actions like walking become a struggle. I was sweating profusely before the demo was even half way through. At some point I was given a limp in one leg. I lurched along a virtual beach on a treadmill. The limp forced me to favor one side over the other and I quickly developed an ache in my hip. When they switched the limp to my right leg I was forced to rely on my non-dominant side and I almost fell over taking my first couple of steps.
Applied Minds, which built the suit with Genworth, also built a number of visual simulators for the Oculus I was wearing that allowed me to experience the world through cataracts and glaucoma. The crowd gathered to watch me become a virtual member of the senior citizen club all but disappeared in front of me as vision loss set in. It was disorienting and isolating, and more than a little upsetting.
But, the most impactful experience definitely came through the headphones. Losing my hearing was deeply unsettling. And when combined with tinnitus it was almost unbearable. It was hard to understand what anyone was saying without the added benefit of reading their lips. But the simulation of aphasia, a speech and language disorder, stopped me in my tracks. While they couldn't simulate the entire experience, since it can also affect reading and writing skills, they were able to recreate the confusion by introducing a slight delay of my own speaking through the headphones. When asked to recite Mary Had a Little Lamb, I stumbled, stutter and plain forgot the words and where I was in the short four line rhyme. It left me disoriented
I'm not going to lie and get all sentimental and say it was life altering, but Genworth and Applied minds accomplished their goal. They wanted me, and others, to develop a little more empathy for the struggles that the elderly suffer through. And I did.