AdBlock Plus, a browser extension that blocks online ads, basically transforms the internet from a festering cesspool of commercial persuasion into a blank canvas of untethered possibility. Brand Killer, an augmented reality headset that blurs out brand logos in real-time, does the same for the offline world.
When you wear Brand Killer, a webcam mounted on the front of the helmet captures your surroundings and streams the video into a computer program using software from the online OpenCV computer vision library to check the feed against a database of logos. The program then blurs the brands out in real-time on a display mounted in front of the wearer's face. Well, sort of—a demonstration video shows that Brand Killer is pretty laggy and the blur effect doesn't always work.
The system's shortcomings can be excused, since Brand Killer was built and designed in 48 hours by a group of undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania at the university's PennApps hackathon this month. The helmet itself was built with some cheap hardware, Reed Rosenbluth, one of the students that built Brand Killer, told me.
"Some people thought we were using an Oculus Rift or something," said Rosenbluth, "but we actually constructed our own DIY headset using a webcam, a seven-inch screen we bought on Amazon, and welding goggles."
As for the group's inspiration for the project, Rosenbluth told me that the popular sci-fi anthology TV series Black Mirror gave them the idea.
"We were inspired by the Christmas episode of Black Mirror," Rosenbluth told me. "We thought the idea of blocking people was kind of frightening, and it excited our imaginations. But blocking people is a little difficult for a 48 hour hackathon, so we started thinking about ads, and more specifically, logos, because we could just use a database of logos we wanted to block and it would be very demoable."
Reed and his college buddies' approach is similar to other projects looking to block out the rapacious carnival of consumerism we encounter on the daily. No Ad, for instance, is an Android app that replaces subway station ads with artwork on your device's screen in real-time.
AdBlock Plus's Twitter account jokingly tweeted last year, before the Glasshole dream (possibly) died forever, that real life ad-blocking would be coming to Google Glass, although Rosenbluth said he didn't know about the tweet until after Brand Killer was built.
Brand Killer's effect is kind of like the glasses from John Carpenter's They Live, if Rowdy Roddy Piper were a computer science nerd instead of a system-smashing drifter, and the glasses just half-obscured logos instead of revealing their hidden authoritarian messages. Still, I wonder what Slavoj Zizek would have to say about a helmet that blocks brands?