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Art That’s All On Your Head

Examining helmet-based projects from both a interaction design and aesthetic perspective, there is a clear relationship between the physical design and the functionality they exhume.

Over the past decade, mobile devices have become both an insatiable and ubiquitous aspect of our everyday lives. As they get smaller in physical size and their underlying technology gets cheaper, the future of these computing devices sees them further integrated into our clothing and other objects that we carry with us daily.

Since these technologies have the ability to capture images, know your location, and access limitless information, they are perfect interfaces for shifting human perception and understanding of the world around us. Acknowledging these features and bending their architecture and capabilities even further, are several artists who’ve created intriguing projects that integrate these technologies into custom-built helmets and other head gear that allow for hyperreal augmented reality and sensory diffusion and disassociation.


The helmet design provides a perfect environment to create interfaces with the world that effect both the internal landscape of the wearer and their connection to the outside world, by challenging the perception of the public as to what type of wearable devices are suitable for external audiences.

Decelerator Helmet, Lorenz Potthast, 2012

Beginning with headgear that challenges our sense of time and place, German artist Lorenz Potthast created the Decelerator Helmet, a device that emphasizes and comments on the rushed landscape of our everyday existence. When we move quickly through crowded travel gateways such as airports, bus and train stations, or even walk down a busy urban street, we typically miss the details and manufactured or natural beauty of our daily surroundings.

In an urban environment in particular, simple yet effectual activities abound such as the occasional flower blowing in the wind in a nearby park, pigeons scattering from a large square to avoid pedestrians, or bike messengers traveling along their daily route. Although these types of occurrences play out every minute, our rushed and often fragile attention to detail while traversing urban spaces usually misses them in the blink of an eye. Taken from the artist's description: "The inconceivable amount of information and influences in our everyday lives leads in many cases to an excessive demand. The idea to decouple the personal perception from the natural timing enables the user to become aware of his own time."


With this statement in mind, Potthast's Decelerator Helmet sports an embedded camera that films what the wearer should see in front of them along with a small computer that processes the feed through three different modes of deceleration. The first is "auto-mode" that shows time down on a specific interval, the second is the press mode which allows for a specific deceleration of time when the wearer commands a specific interval to slow down, and the third being the scroll-mode where the user can scroll back and forth through time as it happens.

On the outside of the helmet is another LCD screen that allows passerby’s a glimpse at the viewpoint of the wearer and further engages its audience with the time delay sequence experienced by the person wearing the helmet. By wearing the helmet, the wearer can slow down time in the actions they see before them, thus forcing them to take a closer look at their surroundings and engage further with the people and places they are moving through. The project emphasizes how a loss of the present can affect our perception of the past and eventual future.

Ant Apparatus from Animal Superpowers, Chris Woebken, Kenichi Okada, 2008.

Augmenting our sensory perception of time and spatial connection to the physical world, is the Animal Superpowers project by Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada. The artists define animal superpowers as the fact that "animals have extraordinary abilities allowing them to sense information and perceive the world through sensory experiences far beyond anything humans will know."


For instance, these heightened abilities allow animals to detect upcoming weather patterns weeks before they happen or sense dangers early to better prepare their defenses and much more. The artists attempt to channel these types of augmented sense perception into a series of three distinct helmets that allow their wearers to experience the world as one of three different animals.

Animal Superpowers (video), Chris Woebken, Kenichi Okada, 2008.

The first of the series is the Ant Apparatus that allows its wearer to feel like an ant by magnifying their vision 50 times through microscope antennas held in their hands. The second is the "Bird Device" that approximates birds' detection of geomagnetic fields that they use to find their way south in the winter, but instead the devices will vibrate when its wearer is oriented in a specific direction such as towards an ice cream shop, their home, or their pet. Thus the apparatus allows them to have a sixth sense of navigation and approximate the location of a given object through vibration. The third helmet in the series is the "Giraffe" device that allows for kids to change their voice to a lower octave and their viewing perspective to 30 cm higher than it normally is in order to transform kids into adults. This hyper acceleration of our bodily senses transforms us not only into super humans but also challenges the accepted notions of how our senses should act as we perceive the realities we engage with daily.


Touchy, Eric Siu, 2012.

Within this curious realm of sensory connection to the space around us and the images we witness daily is Touchy (2012) by Eric Siu. The artist describes the project as "a phenomenological social interaction experiment that focuses on the relationship of giving and receiving by literally transforming a human into a camera." The person wearing the apparatus is temporarily blind as motorized shutters are closed over their eyes, but when their skin is touched by another person, the shutters spin open and the camera on top of the helmet snaps a photo, which is then displayed on an LCD screen on the back of the helmet.

Touchy is a camera that can only capture an image if the protagonist wearing it is physically touched by another person for a duration of 10 seconds. Commenting on the social and physical separation that exists between people in public and densely crowded spaces, the camera only sees the emotional and poetic side of direct connection between its wearer and those around it. Without a touch, no images are captured thus uncovering the harsh character or general social awkwardness and apprehension between people who inhabit public spaces. Since a touch can be both powerful and sensual, the project’s intention is to free its wearer from isolation and anxiety by turning their dark perception of the world inside the helmet into an immediate snapshot of the outside world initiated directly through human contact. This sense of closeness allows the wearer to engage in a didactic appreciation of closeness and intimacy through human touch that is powerful enough to enable vision.


Pushing the boundaries of augmented reality in the realm of VR helmets, gaming and virtual worlds is Marc Owens' Avatar Machine. Owens, a London-based artist/designer, created the project to build a machine that replicates the aesthetics and visual style of third-person gaming by allowing a player to view themselves as a virtual character in real space through a head-mounted interface. The camera is attached to the wearer's back while they don a helmet with a built in display system that shows the feed from the camera behind them, watching them traverse through the physical world. Thus their viewpoint is automatically shifted into a third-person perspective watching their own body from behind. In effect, Owens' helmet is a disembodied object that transports viewers toward a novel perspective of their own physical inhabitance of time, space, and linear movement.

Interstitial Space Helmet, Auger/Loizeau/, 2004.

An earlier helmet project, the Interstitial Space Helmet, designed by the UK-based team of James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau consisted of a custom-designed helmet with a camera on the interior and an LCD screen in place of the wearer’s face. The camera captures live images of its wearer and broadcasts this feed in real time to the LCD screen on the outside of the helmet, while a camera relays a live feed to the inside screen where the wearer could see his or her surroundings. This helmet design commented on the fact that in today's world of global communications and networked technological infrastructure, most of our interpersonal communication between people is now mediated through a screen. Thus the artists’ goal was to demonstrate how most people are less comfortable interacting in real life with others and prefer the psychological barrier and bridge that a screen can offer for these types of exchanges. The ISH provided just enough transposed separation between the wearer and the outside world to allow for a comfortable viewing angle and engagement between the wearer and the public at large.


Hövding Helmet, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin.

Two more helmet designs that bridge the gap between functional aesthetics and pure showmanship are the Hövding Helmet by Swedish designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin and the Daft Punk Helmet by Harrison Krix. The Hövding project started off as an idea the two women had in graduate school at Lund University where they wanted to create a helmet "so attractive that adult cyclists would voluntarily start protecting their heads on the roads without the law ordering them to do so." Replacing the bulky plastic shells that cyclists around the world wear daily, the Hövding Helmet consists of a concealed airbag shaped like a hood that sits directly behind the wearer’s head and can be covered by customizable removable shell that can be changed based on the outfit the rider is wearing. The airbag deploys based on sensors that track unusual movements experienced by a cyclist only when they are in an accident. The helmet is light, easy to carry around, and maintains its fashionable aesthetic both when it's not deployed and when it’s open. This design offers a vast departure from how traditional functional helmets are both deployed in public, and also psychologically perceived by the population as something more intrusive than aesthetically pleasing.

Daft Punk Helmet, Harrison Krix, 2010.

Examining the helmet from an aesthetic and theatrical perspective comes the Draft Punk Helmet by Atlanta, Georgia-based prop designer and artist, Harrison Krix. Krix's helmet is based on the iconic gold Daft Punk helmet worn by Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo, a founding member of the French house music artists, Daft Punk, during their 2007 Alive tour. This helmet design incorporates custom-built electronics including an Arduino-based brain of the system that controls up to 10 chains of LED lights that change their pattern based on the sound heard in their direct vicinity. The Daft Punk Helmet is both visually striking and functional in its ability to synthesize sound into lights as well as promote a type of deliberately dark and future scenario of people who are socially awkward on the inside but grandiose showmen on the outside. The visual design of the helmet evokes that of 80s style arcade games and exemplifies what a technological object can bring to head gear by evoking a futuristic scenario of technologically augmented beings who want to bring music visualization into a fashionable aesthetic.

Examining these helmet-based projects from both a interaction design and aesthetic perspective, there is a clear relationship between their physical design and the functionality they exhume. The most obvious of these is the Hövding Helmet, which was intended to create a less intrusive method for protecting its wearer's head by integrating airbags and sensors into clothing. While this project capitalized on what helmets were meant for in the first place, ie. to protect the head, the others profiled attempt to augment their wearer's senses and add a novel perspective on both seeing the world as mediated by technology, and how relating to others through digital means can often change our relationship to ourselves and those around us. In any case, the helmet as a wearable object is a beneficial area to explore further due to its natural ability to cradle our most precious senses while heightening these senses as they experience the physical realities of everyday life.

Jonah Brucker-Cohen is a researcher, artist, and writer. He received his Ph.D. in the Disruptive Design Team of the Electronic and Electrical Engineering Department of Trinity College Dublin. His work and thesis is titled "Deconstructing Networks" and includes over 77 creative projects that critically challenge and subvert accepted perceptions of network interaction and experience. His work has been exhibited and showcased at venues such as San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, ICA london, Whitney Museum of American Art (Artport), Palais Du Tokyo,Tate Modern, Ars Electronica, Transmediale, and more. His writing has appeared in publications such as WIRED, Make, Gizmodo, Neural and more. His Scrapyard Challenge workshops have been held in over 14 countries in Europe, South America, North America, Asia, and Australia since 2003.