Almost a third of adults age 65 and older report difficulty walking just three city blocks. But a company called Superflex has raised $10 million to build a solution—and it doesn't involve wheels. Superflex is building a new type of everyday exoskeleton dubbed "powered clothing" that's slated for release in mid-2018.
The promise may sound wild, but it's born from DARPA-funded research at SRI International—the same nonprofit think tank that brought us Siri. Superflex's first product will be a soft undergarment built to wrap around the user's core. Weighing in at about four pounds, it’s a flexing second skin of mechanical muscles to help elderly people sit, stand, and even move their hips to walk.
"I’m not afraid to say that we know we’re building the first super suit," says Superflex CEO Rich Mahoney. "We really think about it that way. But this isn’t 22nd century [sci-fi]. It’s a real product, venture backed, and we’re trying to specialize for a population that has a specific need."
Mobility is a serious concern for the aging population that snowballs slowly from day-to-day quality of life issues into major health problems, taking a measurable toll on the body and psyche. A sedentary, aging population forced to stay home faces decreased nutrition, increased depression, and higher risk for all sorts of diseases like diabetes. By 2050, the U.S. will have nearly 85 million people over the age of 65, in a global trend of both growing populations and life-spans.
For the last decade, countries like Japan have promised a new wave of assistive robots will be released to aid the elderly in everyday tasks, but none of these humanoids has reached the critical combination of price and functionality that would make the idea feasible at worldwide scale. And frankly, it’s hard to imagine an Asimo—Honda's priceless dancing robot—for everyone happening any time soon. Rather than imagining the robot as a plastic person that has two arms and two legs, Superflex proposes that maybe the robot could be built into everyday garments.
Superflex’s elastic muscle technology, developed originally under a DARPA grant intended to help soldiers carry gear with less fatigue, looks like the marriage of a wetsuit and kinesio-tape. An onboard computer ensures that it flexes in concert with your real muscles, much like an electric bike that supplements your pedaling with its motor.
Why start with the core? It’s both the center of human movement, and the perfect "core" of a platform to come. "The reason is so that our approach can be modular, scalable," says Mahoney. "We could be focusing on the ankle or elbow." And indeed, future Superflex products sound like they might target body areas like arms, legs, and shoulders more specifically—potentially even connecting in with the core product to function as one system.
But for Mahoney, the ensuing challenges are more in packaging these elastic muscles than honing the baseline technology. In fact, he’s confident enough in the muscles that he's replaced mechanical engineers that spearheaded the project earlier, and has instead hired a team of textile and fashion designers to consider all of the finer challenges of UX: from ensuring robotic garments can look attractive and feel comfortable, to figuring out how an elderly person can slip on an exoskeleton without the power of an exoskeleton—all while still managing to use the bathroom when they need to. These problems are all, in fact, prioritized above ever-lingering technical challenges like battery life. (Mahoney thinks it’s feasible that the first product will only need to be charged once a day.)
Over the next year, Superflex plans to finalize the product while proving out the business model. While Mahoney won’t talk specifics of price, he knows that as a consumer wellness product—a category that’s shared by companies like Fitbit in its broadest sense—it has to be affordable, and it cannot rely upon insurance subsidies. "We want to position ourselves as a clothing innovation, not a robotic innovation," Mahoney says of the marketing and product strategy. "Something more approachable." Though it will also have to come with all sorts of warnings that those who are severely injured, or sick, should consult with their doctor.
But assuming Superflex can pull it all off, there’s certainly a market for its first product. If there’s one constant in the world, it’s that we’re all getting older.