A high-tech suit intended to make engineers at Ford feel like an unfit 70-year-old is helping them to think about diversity in design.
The suit has orthoses for every limb to make joints feel stiff, a corset and a 10kg vest to simulate weak and bent back, a neck brace to impede head movements and arthritis-simulating gloves make it difficult to manipulate small objects, like radio or air-conditioning controls.
The suit is also equipped with a set of glasses to mimic various eyesight disorders including glaucoma and cataracts, ear muffs to simulate deteriorated hearing and a tremor generator attached to the hand.
“We started to develop this suit together with the University of Loughborough back in 1994,” said Monika Wagener, Ford Motor Company’s European spokesperson.
“The idea was brought up by our Cologne-based development centre in 1994 where they found the need to mimic all the restrictions that come with old age, to really get the feeling, particularly for the younger engineers, how things need to be designed to cope with the requirements of this group of people.”
The use of the suit has influenced car design considerably, Ford said. The first model to have benefited from the unusual tool was the original Ford Focus designed in the mid-1990s. The car received wider taller front doors for easier access as a result. Yet the engineers also realised how difficult it is to reverse a vehicle when someone cannot turn their head easily.
“In the last couple of years, we have seen more and more features in our cars, which are really benefiting older people but also the younger ones,” Wagener said. “Our rear view camera is certainly convenient for a 20 year old woman who is otherwise fully capable to turn her head. For everyone with problems in the neck and back area, this really eases their lives.”
With more than a quarter of Europeans now aged 65 and over, a design tool such as the 3rd Age Suit could help keep the continent’s ageing population mobile, Ford believes.
“The majority of engineers and designers were – and still are – young people who find it difficult to imagine living with some of the limitations older drivers face,” said Mike Bradley, who led ergonomics research at Ford in the 1990s.
“The ‘Third Age Suit’ provokes understanding, empathy, and ultimately progress. There’s no doubt that at first we were seen as the guys with the funny suit, but it didn’t take long for people to understand the serious side to what we do.”
The suit has been perfected over the years to make the ‘old age feeling’ more realistic. The current third generation has been developed in cooperation with researchers from Meyer-Hentschel Institute in Germany.
Ford has also developed suits simulating the influence of drugs and alcohol, which are being used to educate young drivers about the risks of driving intoxicated.
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