Exoskeletons have, to this point, largely been theoretical in how they work. We’ve been working on them since the ’60s, but until now they’ve essentially been powered scaffolds you strap yourself into. The soft exosuit the military is building, though, is another beast altogether.
Designed partially by Harvard’s Wyss Institute, the basic concept of the suit is to layer muscles over your muscles. Built out of specialty fabrics, it will, in theory, allow soldiers to run further, lift more, and generally be more effective in the field. But, longer-term, it will allow those with muscle problems to get support from the suit and stay active.
It also has fewer of the problems generally associated with these suits, like what they euphemistically call “joint misalignment.” Yes, some powered exoskeletons can break your arm if you use them wrong. You can see why this may be a problem for consumer applications, so Wyss’ soft version is drawing considerable interest from medical device companies. The one problem is that, being soft, it won’t support the user, so they’ll need to able to take both their own weight and the force of the device as it works.
In other words, Grandma won’t be jumping over buildings if she straps this thing on. But then again, she probably just wants to walk without having a piece of metal to lean on, so that’s a good trade-off.