Could This Piece of Wearable Art Help You Live Longer?

  • Image courtesy of the artists.

    Image courtesy of the artists.

From the Apple Watch to virtual and augmented reality headsets, wearable technology is pretty well established at this point. But apart for some wearable fitness trackers (Fitbit bands, Jawbone Ups) it hasn’t exactly set the market on fire. Yet. And while a lot of wearables monitor health and fitness by tracking a user’s biometric data (like heart rate or blood pressure), a precious few collect and analyze the data found in a user’s surrounding environment. That is precisely where the Environment Dress 2.0 comes in. It is a smart garment that senses ever-present dangers like UV radiation and carbon monoxide, the detection of which could potentially save a user’s life.

Currently on view at Ars Electronica’s “Human Factor: Endless Prototyping,” the work was developed by Spanish artists María Castellanos and Alberto Valverde and builds on a prototype the duo designed in 2015. The dress uses sensors to detect the unseen environmental factors of daily life—temperature, atmospheric pressure, noise, and dust levels among them—and then warn users of contaminants. The sensors feed the data into an accompanying mobile app that is controlled by the user. One wrong turn onto a crowded urban sidewalk and they can command the dress to close its helmet to guard them from increasing sound levels; tipped off to the presence of carbon monoxide, they can activate a set of spikes.

  • Images courtesy of the artists.

    Images courtesy of the artists.

For both Castellanos and Valverde, who began working together in 2009 under the name uh513, the project was sparked by an interest in the human body, particularly how human capabilities can be enhanced with technology. While Castellanos had presented a thesis on “bionic skin” during her doctorate at the University of Vigo, Spain, exploring hybridizations of wearables and cybernetics, Valverde had been studying wearables as part of his artistic practice. Through this independent work, the two came together under the realization that makers of wearable technology were ignoring the environment.

“In our daily surroundings there are a lot of factors that can affect our mood and our relationships with others,” says Castellanos. “So, we decided to create a dress—a smart dress that is able to measure environmental data and how it impacts us,” she adds. In addition to detecting environmental threats, the app also captures and stores a user’s geolocation and prompts them to record their mood, ultimately revealing the impact of their surroundings on their state of mind and allowing the user to create an “emotional map” of their city.

According to Castellanos, the dress could help users and the wider population determine which parts of their cities are safest to tread by compiling useful data about the surrounding environment. Given that the app consistently records data while in use, when walking around a city a user can study their route to see just how much dust, carbon monoxide, and UV radiation they are subject to. But while the dress can offer real-time environmental analysis and alerts for its users, the artists are more interested in the data analysis after its use, allowing users to visualize it on their website. In this way, users may carefully review all of the data collected to extract larger conclusions and plan their days accordingly. On whether the dress could in fact help one live longer, Castellanos is conservative. “But,” she says, “it could alert you to something that your natural sensors would not detect.”

  • Image courtesy of the artists.

    Image courtesy of the artists.

Capturing this type of data, Castellanos and Valverde insist, also has a political motivation. Most people do not have easy access to environmental data, let alone real-time updates. A study of fracking in Washington County, Pennsylvania found higher incidences of conditions like upper respiratory problems and skin rashes. And it’s all too common for asbestos to be found in schools and dwellings, though none are the wiser to its presence. “My hometown in the north of Spain has a lot of industry—a lot of factories launch [pollutants] into the atmosphere that we do not know are there,” says Castellanos. “What would happen if citizens could really know about this?”

To that end, Castellanos and Valverde have made Environment Dress 2.0 open source, which means that anyone can access or modify their original code. They would be “delighted” if other artists and designers wanted to integrate this technology into their clothes and accessories, which would ultimately push forward an awareness they see as being so critical to our world.



—DJ Pangburn