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A sweater that fools facial recognition cameras, and more ways designers are getting creative with tech

Cap_able is an Italian start-up which has designed knitted garments to shield facial recognition.
Cap_able is an Italian startup which has designed knitted garments to shield facial recognition technology.

Dress for success isn't just a saying anymore. Scanning your rock band t-shirt might bring up videos of a concert you attended. Embedded NFTs can prove you own a limited run clothing item. A special sweater can shield your identity from facial recognition cameras.

Clothing that can speak to our devices, known as e-textiles, is growing at an exponential rate, according to the latest data.

That doesn’t surprise Ashley Kubley, associate professor of fashion design at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP).

"A lot of this is happening in the classroom as we embed more educational content around digital pattern making, avatar creation, for our students in the fashion area in order to prepare them for an industry where people are going to be fitting their garments based off of a body-scanned avatar," says Kubley.

She points to the good and the bad. On the positive side is more inclusive sizing for people who might have a different body type or a different ability level. Kubley says facial recognition is collecting and remembering a lot of detailed information.

"People are worried about their data security, but they don't really consider how maybe these technologies are taking different kinds of data that could be used against them later with the shape of their faces, the color of their skin, the color of their hair, the color of their eyes, the shape of their bodies," she says.

Facial recognition isn’t just in China

New York’s Attorney General says Madison Square Garden's use of facial recognition may violate human rights laws.

MSG admits to using the technology to identify people it doesn’t want to allow to attend events. That includes lawyers who work for firms suing MSG.

Plans to install a facial recognition entry system for a Brooklyn building prompted an Italian fashion designer to create clothing that confuses facial recognition software.

Cap_able is fooling facial recognition cameras into thinking you are a giraffe, a zebra or a dog.  The clothing it makes doesn't go over your face. Instead, you wear colorful designs on your body in the form of sweater material.

University of Cincinnati DAAP Associate Professor Emily Flannery is a fashion futurist and explains using patterns can confuse technology.

"It doesn't know which type of face it's viewing," she explains. "It's looking at a blend of a few different images. So the images in the article, they look kind of like a brightly colored botanical scene but also reminiscent of digital camouflage."

Flannery doesn't know how long this technology can continue to fool facial recognition cameras. She advises trying to create your own design.

"DIY and home examples are of someone taking a garment they already own and then augmenting it with things, maybe a kit that they buy from a third party."

UC grad and fashion designer Amanda Howe sees the Cap_able sweaters as a very temporary solution but she likes the "powerful" and "well-designed statement" it's making.

Howe works for the augmented reality startup Sphene which specializes in appending augmented reality holograms into physical clothes.

Howe wants to find ways to help people develop a deeper relationship with their clothes.

"You could get a band t-shirt and you scan the shirt. It plays all the videos from the tour in New York or the one in Tokyo or wherever else in the world that they're performing," she says. "Or on a ski mountain and you scan your jacket, and you see a 3D model of the mountain and all the trails you have completed light up."

The e-textiles and smart clothing market is expected to reach $27 million by 2030.

Updated: June 16, 2023 at 12:44 PM EDT
This segment first aired on January 30, 2023.
Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.