Eyes off: The 3-D printed cape that warns you when you're being watched

Story highlights

  • PhD candidate Behnaz Farahi has created a garment that detects the gaze of others
  • The 3D printed piece of wearable technology may one day be able to detect age and gender

(CNN)Behnaz Farahi is an architect obsessed with cyborgs.

"I've been reading a lot of British philosopher Andy Clark, and his theories about how we have already become cyborgs.
Our iPads, our iPhones, our laptops have already made us cyborgs. I'm interested to explore that further," she says.

Caress of the Gaze

The University of Southern California PhD candidate -- who also holds two master's degrees in architecture -- has added her own twist to the post-human narrative with her latest project: Caress of the Gaze, a 3-D-printed animatronic garment that detects when and where you're being stared at, and moves and morphs in response. So if you've ever wondered whether someone was looking at you or just felt the heat of someone's stare boring into you, this will let you know for sure.

"Caress of the Gaze refers to the 'haptic' quality of our gaze. It's taking something from invisible to visible," says Farahi, whose past inventions include a headpiece that changes shape based on brain activity, and a wall that responds to the gestures of those near it. "The idea for this project was really to create a garment that becomes an extension of our actual skin."

How it works

A camera lens smaller than 3 mm detects a watcher's stare, and a computer algorithm maps exactly where they're looking. Spines attached to that spot then stiffen and sway.
Though the overall look is that of quills on a porcupine under threat, Farahi actually modeled the morphology on fish and snake scales (each one is attached to a flexible mesh), and the movement on an innate human reaction: goose bumps.
"It's really exploring the logic of our skin. Our skin is constantly in motion: it expands, contracts, and changes its shape based on various stimuli -- temperature, moisture, or even feelings such as excitement or anger."

Multiple inspirations

Her inspirations for this concept were as varied as her own interdisciplinary background would suggest. She's drawn from different wells, most notably conceptual feminist artists like Barbara Kruger ("Your gaze hits the side of my face") and film theorist Christian Metz ("At every moment I am in the film by my look's caress.")
"Sometimes the gaze can be invasive, sometimes it can be soothing and reassuring. I'm interested in the roles it can play."

Attracting attention

A clever and strangely beautiful blend of engineering, coding, fashion design and critical thinking, it's no wonder Caress of the Gaze has attracted attention from tech, fashion and news publications alike. It's been sold as a device that "reacts to the eye (and the male gaze)", "can tell when someone is checking you out," and is "way cooler than a hookup app." It's somehow both anti-ogling armor and wearable Tinder.
On her end, Farahi is fascinated and delighted by the breadth of reactions. She'd hoped Caress of the Gaze would end up a conversational lighting rod that defies clear-cut explanations, as much an art piece as it is a feat of tech.
"In a way, my story is the same. Am I an architect or am I a designer? Am I a fashion designer, or a kinetic artist?" she says. "It's an open story. You're waiting for the audience to write the ending for themselves."

Next steps

Going forward, Farahi would like to find ways to incorporate recognition technology to help determine the gazer's age or gender. Though she admits there's a long way to go before that's a reality (as Microsoft showed us earlier this year), she hopes future developments will continue the conversation about the possibilities and implications of advanced wearables.
"How can our clothing or fashion items become an interface with the world around us? What kind of scenarios are there for the future of fashion?" she asks. "We need to think about how this sort of technology is changing our notions of our bodies and our notions of ourselves."