The Suit You Will Need to Avoid Surveillance in the Future

It may be fictional, but the idea isn’t far off from existing technologies.

Liam Young

There are many ways to be invisible, and many kinds of eyes that can see you. Facial-recognition technology, for example, has some artists and designers devising ways to hide from face-detection systems. (Robinson Meyer wore one of those strategies around Washington, D.C., for a while.) There are anti-drone hoodies that attempt to make the wearer invisible to thermal imaging. And now, one architect and artist has dreamed up outerwear that is meant to avoid detection by laser systems.

Liam Young’s anti-LIDAR suits are costumes for a film project he’s working on with science-fiction writer Tim Maughan. The film, Where the City Can’t See, is set in a near-future Detroit, in which the Chinese run a special economic zone meant to spur the economy. In the background, there are groups trying to escape the endless machine-reading all around them—a “smart city” that has not just taken over and scanned every inch of the world, but has dictated the way that spaces are built. To rebel against those systems, people in Young’s film wear LIDAR invisibility suits. A few weeks ago, Young invited participants of an art and design festival in the U.K. to visit the film’s set, where they were shooting a forest scene featuring actors wearing the LIDAR suits.

Liam Young

Young homed in on LIDAR because it’s being used all around us. Google Earth uses LIDAR to generate topological images. Urban planners use LIDAR to scan cities and create 3D models. LIDAR systems have been used in adaptive cruise controls—systems that detect what’s around a vehicle and adjust the car’s speed as necessary—and incorporated in robots as another way for them to sense the world around them. There are all kinds of machines looking at the world using LIDAR these days, and Young wanted to create a way to become invisible to those machines.

The way the suits work is pretty simple, because LIDAR itself is a pretty simple technology. Most LIDAR systems involve a camera spinning around on a tripod shooting out lasers at a high frequency. The camera then looks for that laser light to bounce back, and can work out the shapes and sizes of things based on how long it takes. The idea behind the anti-LIDAR outfits is to scramble laser reflections. The suits are shimmery and textured, aimed at making the laser light ricochet unpredictably, sending an image back to the camera that is muddled and distorted.

Young, an architect by training, is also interested in applying this kind of design to buildings—theoretically, anyway. By doing things like using surfaces that are hard to scan, like mirrors or black rubber, and incorporating water into designs, he has built a future world where certain spaces are invisible to machines. “I like the way that you can be quite exuberant, but then to a certain extent might be a total void in the point cloud.”

Exuberant may be putting it mildly. Like anti-face-recognition Dazzle paint, which involves large splotches of paint on your cheeks, anti-LIDAR suits are not inconspicuous to other humans. They glisten. Someone wearing any of these is probably, in fact, more memorable to a human eye and brain. “It’s a particular mode or age of camouflage which isn’t about disappearing,” Young says. “It’s not about blending into the forms and colors of the forest. Our crazy iridescent suits aren’t about disappearing in plain sight. They’re just about disappearing within the sense of the technology. So you have this really intriguing new mode of fashion extension, where you can be wild and playful within the visible-light spectrum.”

As more and more machines are looking at us, more and more artists are experimenting with different forms of invisibility. “I don’t buy the vision of the future where everyone is wearing the same outfit, I’m interested in the ways that these technologies create new communities,” he says. Instead, he imagines a return to 1980s fashion, where the line between costume and clothing was blurred.

In the future, full of smart cities and homes, surveilled by all sorts of entities, there will be all kinds of eyes on us. And with those eyes will come new ways of hiding.