VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Even if he reads all the baby books and attends all the birthing classes, no man can truly appreciate the constant discomfort and odd physical sensations of being pregnant. That is, not until he tries on Takayuki Kosaka's "Mommy Tummy" pregnancy suit. The suit, on display here at the SIGGRAPH 2011 interactive technology conference, simulates nine months of weight gain, breast enlargement, baby kicking and balance changes in just over two minutes, letting men experience at least the physical challenges of pregnancy.
Designed at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology (KAIT) in Atsugi, Japan, the suit resembles a flak jacket or the lead vest that people wear when getting dental X-rays. A bladder in the belly fills up with water, simulating the growth and average weight of Japanese babies. Similar bladders in the chest expand to simulate breasts filling with milk. A series of actuators that lie against the wearer's stomach fire on and off to give the sensation of a kicking baby, and sensors on the tummy allow the wearer to relieve the kicking by rubbing the belly.
Kosaka and his team hope to deploy the Mommy Tummy suits in hospitals and community centers, where men can increase their visceral empathy towards their partners during pregnancy classes. While wearing the suit, the men are asked to perform a series of tasks, such as picking something up off the ground, to better understand how even mundane tasks become increasingly difficult as the baby grows and the women's center of gravity shifts.
During laboratory testing, 80 percent of mothers who tried on the suit said that the sensations and weight distribution accurately replicated the feeling of carrying a child.
"It's hard to tell in two minutes if someone becomes more empathetic," said Robert Songer, an associate lecturer at KAIT and a researcher on the Mommy Tummy project, "but we have gotten a lot of comments about how users are glad that they're dudes."
The suit does not simulate labor or a craving for pickles, but future versions will incorporate a remote unit that attaches to the actual mother-to-be, so the father-to-be can feel the baby kick at the same time his partner does.
These advances may not fully absolve fathers for getting to skip the pain of childbirth, but any device that makes their partner a little more caring should make every woman happy.