Stealth Wear Aims to Make a Tech Statement

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THE term "stealth wear" sounded cool, if a bit extreme, when I first heard it early this year. It's a catchy description for clothing and accessories designed to protect the wearer from detection and surveillance. I was amused. It seemed like an updated version of a tinfoil hat, albeit a stylish one.

Fast-forward a few months. Flying surveillance cameras, also known as drones, are increasingly in the news. So are advances in facial-recognition technology. And wearable devices like Google Glass -- which can be used to take photographs and videos and upload them to the Internet within seconds -- are adding to the fervor. Then there are the disclosures of Edward Snowden, the fugitive former government contractor, about clandestine government surveillance.

It's enough to make countersurveillance fashion as timely and pertinent as any seasonal trend, like midriff tops or wedge sneakers.

Adam Harvey, an artist and design professor at the School of Visual Arts and an early creator of stealth wear, acknowledges that countersurveillance clothing sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel.

"The science-fiction part has become a reality," he said, "and there's a growing need for products that offer privacy."

Mr. Harvey exhibited a number of his stealth-wear designs and prototypes in an art show this year in London. His work includes a series of hoodies and cloaks that use reflective, metallic fabric -- like the kind used in protective gear for firefighters -- that he has repurposed to reduce a person's thermal footprint. In theory, this limits one's visibility to aerial surveillance vehicles employing heat-imaging cameras to track people on the ground.

He also developed a purse with extra-bright LEDs that can be activated when someone is taking unwanted pictures; the effect is to reduce an intrusive photograph to a washed-out blur. In addition, he created a guide for hairstyling and makeup application that might keep a camera from recognizing the person beneath the elaborate get-up. The technique is called CV Dazzle -- a riff on "computer vision" and "dazzle," a type of camouflage used during World War II to make it hard to detect the size and shape of warships.

Mr. Harvey isn't the only one working on such products. The National Institute of Informatics in Japan has developed a visor outfitted with LEDs whose light isn't visible to the wearer -- but that would blind some camera sensors and blur the details of a wearer's nose and eyes more effectively than a pair of sunglasses.

And Todd Blatt, a mechanical engineer in New York, is working on a lens-cap accessory for people who don't want to be recorded while talking with someone who is wearing Google Glass. Instead of asking that the computer glasses be removed entirely, they could instead hand the wearer the lens covering. Presto. No taping or photographing would occur during the conversation.

Mr. Harvey likened his work and that of others to the invention of the rivet in denim jeans. "That was a practical way of making them more durable," he said. Stealth wear, he said, is an "updated way of thinking about making your clothes more resistant to your environment and adapting them to protect you a little bit more."

But these designers face a challenge: although technology has inspired some new fabrics and materials, high-tech fashion of any kind has yet to really take off.

There simply isn't much of a market for tech-savvy haute couture, said Becky Stern, an artist and the director of wearable electronics at Adafruit Industries, a company in New York that sells do-it-yourself electronics kits. Ms. Stern noted that a few years ago, clothing embedded with illuminated lights was relatively popular, but that interest later "kind of fell off."

Some of the most exciting experimentation is in the world of sports, she said, where athletic wear is being developed that can monitor a player's vital signs. Such products are commercially viable, she said, and the technology could eventually migrate to clothing designed specifically to protect the privacy of its owner.

Jan Chipchase, executive creative director of global insights at Frog Design, says he sees tremendous potential for an eventual stealth-wear market. He described current prototypes as "provocations," saying they raise "issues that are impacting our cities and public spaces that need more discussion and debate."

Mr. Harvey's items have not yet been thoroughly tested by intelligence firms or security experts. Most are still concepts, not ready for mass production. But he said he hoped that awareness of his designs might "empower you to control your identity a little more."

AND the mere fact that such designs are attracting attention online could pave the way for development of a mass market, said Joanne McNeil, a writer who covers Internet culture.

On her blog "Internet of Dreams," Ms. McNeil says that videos and mock-ups of not-yet-developed products, whether clothing or futuristic smartphones, are often popular online and may reflect the desires of a populace that larger corporations haven't tapped.

"Dreams outpace physical realities," she said.

In other words, even if stealth wear never becomes a viable or commercial reality, the newfound intrusiveness it responds to is genuine enough.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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