High-Tech Suit Lets You Know What It's Like to Be Old

Creation will help make products, services more user-friendly for an aging population, scientists say

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By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Oct. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Plastic bands that restrict movement. Glasses that make vision dull and yellowed. Shoes that throw the wearer off balance. Harnesses that make the body hunch over. Gloves that make fingers clumsy and awkward.

These are all components of AGNES, a suit developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help product designers prepare the world for the aging of the baby boom generation.

An acronym for the Age Gain Now Empathy System, AGNES places the wearer in the shoes of a person in their 70s suffering from advanced diabetes and osteoarthritis, said Joseph Coughlin, one of the suit's creators and the founder and director of MIT's AgeLab, a multi-disciplinary research program created to study the behavior and quality of life of people 45 and older.

"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," Coughlin said.

AGNES is part of an overall design trend focused on making the world easier for everyone to navigate through, but particularly people whose mobility or senses have been dulled by age, said Daniel Reingold, president and chief executive of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a New York City geriatric center.

"You're seeing it in almost every kind of consumer product -- things ranging from automobiles to utensils to even interior design," Reingold said. "You're seeing more thought given to baby boomers as they age, and adapting design to meet our needs."

The first AGNES suit, version 1.0, was created in 2005, Coughlin said. Today's model, AGNES 2.0, has been further refined by a team of engineers, doctors, ergonomics experts and psychologists to precisely replicate the effects of aging and chronic disease. And, team members are working on the next generation, which they say will contain more sensors to glean better objective data while the suit is in use.

Besides being used by MIT students, companies have sought out AGNES to help them improve their products, Coughlin said:

  • A consumer foods company used the suit to rethink the packaging of its products -- including the size of the type on labeling, the ease of opening the package and the placement of the product on store shelves.
  • A German car manufacturer used AGNES to review how easy it was to get in and out of its vehicles and whether the dashboard electronics were easy to see and use.
  • A retail company borrowed AGNES to better understand how people navigate through its stores and use public transportation.

As word of AGNES has spread, Coughlin said, the suit has also taken on a public education role that its designers had not anticipated: It's serving as a warning of what can happen in old age should younger folks 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," he said. "This is not necessarily something that is destiny. Destiny can be controlled with actions that are within your own power."

The idea of prosthetic devices to simulate aging is not new, Reingold said. He recalls training new hires at Hebrew Home by using three layers of latex gloves to simulate arthritic hands and glasses smeared with petroleum jelly to simulate macular degeneration.

"People have done this before, but not this high-tech," he said of AGNES.

Examples of design changes being made to help the aged, infirm and disabled already fill the world around us, if we know where to look, Reingold added.

Cooking utensils now are sold with beefier, rubber-coated grips. Cars have larger dials and bigger doors. Homes are built with counters that are lower to the ground.

"You're seeing more universal design," Reingold said. "It's designed to be accessible for people of all capabilities, including those who are aging."

And that ultimately is the benefit of AGNES, Coughlin said. A suit meant to restrict and inhibit will help design a simpler world for everyone.