Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Designer Nikolas Bentel conjures a dystopian future in which we have to learn to live with irreparably poor air quality.
At first glance, the latest line of smart clothing looks unassuming—a set of black sweaters not unlike what you’d find at the local mall. But wear them out in the city long enough and you’ll start to see why they carry a hefty price tag. In a matter of seconds, the black fades into a pristine white, revealing an intricate pattern of polka dots, cheetah prints, and another labyrinthine design.
The shirts—true to the name of the line, Aerochromics—are responding to changes in air quality. Specifically, the shirts change color when they detect an unhealthy, or even dangerous, concentration of pollutants in the air. One shirt reacts to carbon monoxide, another to radioactive particles, and the third to air pollutants commonly found outdoors.
Futuristic as the shirts may sound, the technology used is actually readily available, says creator Nikolas Bentel, a speculative designer based in Queens, New York. The color-changing dye used in the carbon monoxide-detecting shirt, for example, contains the same chemicals found in monitors used in homes. And embedded into the pollutant-detecting shirts are tiny sensors that monitor changes in air quality.
When the Air Quality Index detected hits 60, defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “moderate” health concern, the sensors activate a micro controller embedded in the collar. That controller then activates heat pads that cause the shirt’s thermal chromic dye to change from black to white. As the AQI approaches 160, which falls into the “unhealthy” interval, the shirt’s entire pattern is revealed.
“The project came out of a speculative world,” says Bentel, whose designs focus on addressing issues of the future. “The way I do a lot of projects is I start with a future scenario of how our world will end up if we keep [ignoring] pollution, let's say, and then how the objects around us will have to change.”
In the dystopia he’s built for this project—which isn’t too far off from what we are seeing today—the human population has let the already alarming levels of air pollution increase so much that extreme weather has become the norm and the atmosphere is beyond repair. “Due to our inability to maintain healthy pollution levels in the past, these storm patterns have gotten so large that we now must live with them instead of fixing them,” he writes on his website. “Fixing the pollution problem was lost a long time ago.”
Bentel says the shirts may come in handy if you want to track pollution changes in your immediate surroundings or get a read on the levels in countries you visit. He adds that he’d like to have people test the shirt and provide feedback, but at $500 a shirt (the nonreactive ones cost $90), Bentel also acknowledges that he probably won’t sell many.
Really, the endeavor is more of a statement. Nowadays, there are several ways for people to stay on top of their city’s level of air pollution—from websites that map global air pollution in real time to portable sensors and mobile apps. London is even planning out to roll out a robust air pollution warning system. Yet that information escapes the general public—and therefore isn’t on top of their list of priorities. “I want people to get more familiar with the fact that pollution is everywhere and that we will have to live with it if we don't change our ways,” Bentel says, admitting that although he has an AQI on his phone, he barely checks it.
The hope is that the shirts will be a starting point. “One of the ways to get people to look at information,” Bentel says, “is to embed the technology into daily life, and into the objects they use every day.”
Shirts, from $90 at Aerochromics.