Shared Air

February 3rd, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

These light-up shirts expose air pollutants in real time.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

If your childhood predated the 1990s, you’ll likely remember Slim Goodbody, the “Superhero of Health,” whose flesh-colored unitard was painted with anatomically correct organs and tissues. For most of us, Goodbody’s revealing look into the human body – on shows such as Captain Kangaroo – was a (nearly unavoidable) walking lesson in treating our bodies right.

If you thought a bodysuit with visible internal parts scarred you for life, now imagine wearing a shirt painted with organs that light up with blue veins whenever you get near air pollution.  That’s precisely what two graduate students have come up with as part of their Masters coursework in the interactive telecommunications program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

For their project “Warning Signs,” Nien Lam and Sue Ngo designed two thermochromic shirts decorated with a laser-cut pink heart or a set of lungs. They use tiny carbon-monoxide detectors to detect pollutants like cigarette smoke or car exhaust. When the shirts come in contact with the dirty air, a microcontroller sends electrical currents through the shirts, heating up wires that run under the internal organs and lighting up the “veins.”  

In an interview with WNYC Culture, Lam said that that the pair wanted to send a message about air pollution while also making a style statement. The shirts have already made an impact on some NYU smokers. “When people would step out to have a cigarette, they would see our project and then feel guilty going out to have that cigarette realizing, ‘Oh, this is actually what I’m doing to myself.’” (Watch a video of the shirts in action.)

And though the shirts are garnering considerable attention, the pair hasn’t yet determined a way to produce their prototypes in scale. But that hasn’t stopped Lam and Ngo, who graduate in May, from thinking about their next project – clothing with alcohol sensors, whose liver lights up when the wearer has had too much to drink.

Think Goodbody-style light-up clothes are the next style statement? Or do you think displaying your blaring blue veins is tantamount to lecturing polluters on the street?