Sometimes you just can’t understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes until you experience it yourself.
For people who need to understand what it feels like to be elderly, there’s a high-tech suit that lets the wearer experience it. The suit was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab to help students and product designers experience the physical challenges of being older.
The “AGNES” suit, which is an acronym for the Age Gain Now Empathy System places the wearer in the shoes of a person in their 70s with advanced diabetes and osteoarthritis. It utilizes resistance bands to simulate decreased mobility and diminished strength, special shoes to simulate balance problems, gloves that hamper dexterity and goggles that mimic blurred and dimmed vision. The suit also puts the wearer in a slightly hunched-over stance.
"It's meant to create an 'aha!' moment for the wearer, where they understand what it's like to be old, and to help them understand what needs to be done for a product or service to make it more user-friendly for an aging population," said Joseph Coughlin, one of the suit’s creators.
The first AGNES suit was created in 2005. The new model has been further refined by a team of engineers, doctors, ergonomics experts and psychologists to precisely replicate the effects of aging and chronic disease. The team is already working on the next generation, which will contain more sensors to gather better objective data as the suit is used.
Besides being used by MIT students, companies have sought out AGNES to help them improve their products. So far AGNES has been used by: a retail store chain, a consumer foods company and an auto manufacturer.
As word of AGNES has spread, the suit has also taken on a public education role that its designers had not anticipated. They say AGNES is serving as a warning of what can happen in old age should younger people not take better care of themselves."It suggests this need not be the future of an older adult in their 70s with a chronic disease," Coughlin said.
Examples of design changes being made to help the aged, infirm and disabled already fill the world around us. Experts say the current design trend is toward “universal design” which considers the needs of people of all ages and abilities.
And that ultimately is the benefit of AGNES, say her creators. "If we design it correctly, if we make it easier for seniors, we make it easier for all," Coughlin said. "She actually is a real force for improving the experience of people of all ages across their life span."