Iron Man-style body armor - or more specifically hi-tech exoskeletons - could be offered to mainstream consumers sooner before later. California SuitX is the company leading the charge on that front, and the company's founder Homayoon Kazerooni states that "There is no doubt in my mind that these devices will eventually be sold at hardware stores. As the prices come down you'll be able to simply buy them at Home Depot." The exoskeletal suits use springs, motors, and hydraulics to enhance a wearer's strength and endurance beyond what the human body can handle on its own.
As tech expert Adrian Spragg told BBC News, exoskeletons have gone from being the clandestine things of military and science research to a piece of tech being looked at for its civilian applications:
"Many of the early applications have been focused on military and medical applications, but in the last several years there's been an explosion of use in a range of cases."
The most immediate new application of these exoskeleton suits? Why manual labor of course! Manufacturing workers are reportedly being eyed as a key demographic for the use of exoskeleton suits, with companies like General Motors and Fiat reportedly already testing them out.
The other practical application of the technology is people with physical or medical ailments. As University of California's Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, Professor Kazerooni, explains it, preventing muscle fatigue is one of the primary benefits of the exoskeleton suit:
"We've shown that muscle activity in the back, shoulder and knees drops by 50%," he says. "If muscle activities drop, that means the risk of muscle injury is less. This means that factory or plant managers get more productivity, their insurance costs are lower, and there are less workdays lost to injury. There's less cost and more productivity."
General Motors is taking things right into Marvel territory by looking at a battery-powered exoskeleton glove, dubbed the Iron Hand. It could help alleviate the pressures that workers apply to their hands and fingers when doing labor. According to one company (BioServo), the Iron Hand could also increase users' strength by up to 20% during use. Delta is reportedly trying out a version of an exoskeleton from Sarcos Robotics, which could help maintenance and ground support workers lift 90kg in weight for up to an 8-hour shift.
According to MyPlanet chief executive Jason Cottrell, the future of exoskeleton use is a far-reaching one: "The implications are, in a word, enormous," Cottrell says. "Labour-intensive industries like manufacturing and agriculture have always depended on a workforce that must endure a certain level of physical exhaustion and risk. Devices that support a person's frame while doing their job will fundamentally change how the industries run."
Of course, these exoskeleton suits also invoke quite a lot of dread, thanks to the sci-fi genre and its many bleak predictions about how the tech could go sideways. Neil Blomkamp's Elysium is probably the most unnerving comparison; that film saw a world overpopulated, impoverished, and polluted. Blue-collar workers produce robotics, and exoskeleton suits are very much a reality of the time - and the black market. Cyber-enhanced criminals are the darkside of the coin for such tech - so for every Iron Man and exoskeleton creates, there could also be a Cyberpunk produced.