Gaze Subversion Helmet
Why is there a tendency to associate visibility and transparency with truth, democracy and knowledge? Are there other forms of knowledge that come from the veil? How can we avoid the gaze, subvert it?
Through the process of creating a device that draws awareness to the gaze, the Gaze Subversion Helmet, many fascinating questions arise. The form of the helmet lends it to be further objectified when the aperture becomes opaque. How does this heighten the experience and the awareness of the objectifying gaze? While this device does not address the digital realm of cyber-space, it focuses on the physical confrontations and a heightened awareness of the moment from which the gaze manifests. Its purpose is to react to this physical confrontation of real bodies and gazes.
We are a species that requires privacy, yet that privacy has been deprived of us through concepts of total visibility and the ever present gaze. How can we design using a play of nuances of visibility, allowing for the gaze to manifest at particular moments and denying it at others? What can we learn from these nuances that we would not learn from a society of total visibility or total veiling? Drawing on architectural and design precedents, this helmet explores these nuances. The implications of the helmet go beyond the theoretical applications. These concepts can further be applied medically, specifically to those with difficulty with eye contact and personal confrontation.
The idea behind the Gaze Subversion Helmet was designing a device that would identify the gaze. Initially the design incorporated tracking the heart rate of the user and drawing connections between an increased heart rate and a confrontation, the moment when the eyes lock and the pulse quickens. The concern with this method was that many stimuli could cause an increased heart rate and therefore this is better when coupled with another measuring device. Facial tracking offered a more precise way of capturing the manifestation of the gaze. The design of the helmet developed around this, starting out as a pair of glasses in earlier iterations and then evolving into a full head covering.
How it works:
A facial recognition camera, operated by a raspberry pi, controls the gaze of the wearer by obscuring his/her vision once a gaze is met. If a gaze is met, the prosthetic draws attention to the fact and blocks the view of the user while preventing the external participant from engaging visually with the user. The opaque aperture as well as the acrylic materiality of the rest of the form is naturally reflective so when a gaze is met and the aperture becomes opaque both the user and participant are made even more aware of their confrontation by virtue of seeing their own reflection looking back at them. The visibility of the user and participant is constantly changing based on this identification of the gaze.
Smart Tint Plastic; White Acrylic; Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Pi Camera
Helmet Prototype and Applications:
The Gaze Subversion Helmet is a prototype that allows its user to avoid confrontation. There are times where an environment may seem overwhelming or hostile and this device’s purpose is to mediate the experience of the user with his/her surroundings. For this iteration of the prototype, it is specifically concerned with eye contact and the gaze shared with others, something that is indicative of a person’s comfort level with the surroundings.
The design contains a facial recognition camera, situated above the wearer’s eyes, operated by a raspberry pi. The purpose of the camera is to control the gaze of the wearer by obscuring his/her vision once a gaze is met. The front aperture is electrically operated to become either transparent or opaque. When no electrical current is running through it, its resting state is opaque. Conversely when an electrical current is running through the plastic it is transparent. Therefore the design concept requires the plastic frontal aperture to be attached and opperated by the raspberry pi.
This device brings awareness to the gaze between bodies. There is a blur between the subject and object relationship as the relationship between the user and the outside participant is constantly in flux. The actors in the experiment are the user, the camera, and the external participant. The camera plays a crucial role and is in charge of identifying confrontations. It does this through programming that specifically recognizes frontal faces and since it is placed just above the user’s eyes in the same plane of his/her face, it registers potential eye contace or face-to-face situations. In other words, the external participant and the user have to be facing one another in order for a gaze to be recognized. The camera has a constant gaze as it is in control of these visual confrontations between the user and the outside environment. If a gaze is met, the prosthetic draws attention to the fact and blocks the view of the user while preventing the external participant to engage visually with the user.
This device does not address simply the gazes of the external participants on the user, instead both user and external participant need to be engaged in a gaze with one another.
In order to give greater control to the user, other iterations of this prototype would re-introduce the heart rate monitor. This device tracks the heart rate through the earlobe (it is worn like a clip-on earring) and can monitor fluctuations that, when paired with the face tracker, would be caused by making eye contact. Further testing needs to be completed in order to understand “negative” responses and “positive” responses. This could then be incorporated such that initially the camera tracks eye contact and then the heart rate monitor tracks whether or not this is an agreeable confrontation, which would then signal the glass to either stay transparent or turn opaque.
This device and its successive prototypes can be applied to people who have difficulty negotiating busy environments or who have trouble making eye contact, for example, in cases of people with autism or PTSD. It allows an introverted experience to exist within an extroverted environment, an escape, of sorts, until the outside environment becomes more hospitable again.
The Gaze Subversion Helmet, initially a tool to explore theoretical concepts of Lacan and Foucault, has developed into a tool to also explore the human condition and our relationship as bodies with other bodies.
Harvard Graduate School of Design
Cambridge, MA, USA
gaze, subjectivity, wearable technology design