Culture

I Built a 'Personal Space Optimiser' to Keep People Away from Me

But did it make my commute – and my life – any better?
28 January 2020, 12:19pm
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Last week, a hotel chain revealed a "personal space optimiser" designed to help tourists in London deal with crowds. It was of course a PR stunt actually designed to sell hotel rooms, but the device – an inflatable jacket that creates an 18-inch "exclusion zone" around the wearer – sounded like a decent way to protect my valuable personal space in a city where commuting often means breathing directly into a stranger's mouth.

Unfortunately, the PR company wouldn't loan me their suit, so I created my own, out of wood, cable ties and 18-inch sticks of pipe insulator.

Stepping onto the tube for the first time, I announced the concept of my suit to the carriage. Some people looked, some chuckled, most took absolutely no notice. Some took a picture on their phone, before pointedly taking absolutely no notice.

The only people who talked directly to me about the jacket were three women from Preston, all wearing Abercrombie and Fitch. Each said they'd had their personal space invaded in the past, but also made a good point: "Wouldn't you be in danger of invading someone else's space with that on?" I couldn't think of a convincing counter-argument.

One woman at Oxford Circus tube station said she thought the suit was "incredible", but that she wouldn't consider wearing it herself. Which is completely understandable, given that it looks fucking stupid.

From the station we walked to Carnaby Street, where I understandably attracted a lot of attention and – as the Preston ladies had suggested I might – encroached a lot on other people's personal space.

There was a huge queue stretching the length of the street, which suddenly turned into less of a queue and more of a frenzy, which we got caught up in the middle of. Someone, who was clearly very famous, was walking through the crowd to a chorus of guttural screaming.

"Who's that guy?" someone asked, as the fangirl frenzy reached a crescendo. In response, perhaps startled by my avant-garde look, a hulking security guard politely but repeatedly asked me to leave.

We later learned that the cause of the commotion was a vlogger called Gabi DeMartino. After 3,000 people turned up to her meet-and-greet in a nearby cosmetics shop, she'd walked along the entire queue so everyone in attendance at least had the chance to see her up close.

"I love and appreciate everyone who showed up," Gabi said later on Instagram. It was nice to know she was happy I came along.

Despite stealing the idea wholesale from a PR company, I thought I might be able to make a bit of money off the suit by selling the IP to a popular brand, to be used in future collections. Which is why I took the perhaps slightly premature step of branding it with "SUPREME" before leaving the house, and heading to the skate brand's Soho store to pitch the idea.

Weirdly, the bouncers wouldn't let me jump the considerable line, and also didn't seem worried that their bosses would see this article and reprimand them for turning away such a foolproof money-spinner. Their loss.

Undeterred, we headed to Chinatown, where we found ourselves in the midst of Lunar New Year celebrations. A gaggle of uniformed officers took an interest in me. "What's that all about?" asked one, so I launched into a sales pitch and floated the idea of the Met using space optimisers to make their jobs more comfortable and safe.

"You must get drunk people getting in your face," I reasoned. A female officer confirmed my theory, but also expressed doubts that the Commissioner would sanction the idea.

At this point, a throng of people descended upon the scene, like I was a full loaf of bread tossed into the middle of a hundred pigeons. My thoughts were quickly drowned out by the jeers of everyone pointing their phones at me, and in that moment I understood what it must feel like to be Gabi DeMartino.

Overall, the jacket worked, in the sense that nobody invaded my personal space the whole time I was out, because they physically couldn't without getting spiked in the eye. But the problem was it drew unwanted attention and regularly invaded the personal space of anyone stood vaguely near me.

So: is the world ready for space optimiser jackets? And, in fact, do they make life any better for the wearer or those around them? No. No, they do not.

@oldspeak1