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Unidentified Halo

Unidentified Halo (2016) was a collaboration with Shir David reflecting on a pervasive surveillance culture and the use of facial recognition in public spaces. The project is a wearable in the form of a hat that is intended to shield the wearer from facial detection on surveillance cameras by creating a halo of infrared light around the face.

We imagined the wearable as not only a speculative piece, but also an anti-surveillance tool that could be worn by anyone on the street to protect their privacy.

The project began as a subversive “kit” of wearable items that would subvert the collection of sensitive biometric data. We discussed the idea further with several engineers at NYU and they suggested that if we were interested in combating facial recognition algorithms, we could create a wearable that shines infrared light on the user’s face.

For our initial prototype, we soldered together 22 IR LEDs that are powered by a rechargeable 500mAH lithium battery and monitored by a potentiometer, and then adhered the circuit to a baseball cap. The LEDs are wired along the bill of the hat and the battery is tucked into the rim. We agreed that the hat shouldn’t require technical know-how and the battery could be easily recharged.

In short: the experiment was successful. The image below was captured from a surveillance camera to which we had access at NYU. You can’t see infrared light in person; it is only visible on camera.

As you can see, the camera picks up a ring of light around the wearer’s face. The infrared light consequently prevents Google’s Cloud Vision platform from detecting a face. When we ran the images through Google’s platform, it not only detected Shir’s face but even offered suggestions of her emotion based on facial indicators. My face, on the other hand, went undetected.  

Press coverage: The Christian Science Monitor

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