Tech by VICE

The Air-Cleaning Onesie That Could Help Fight Beijing's Pollution

The soft and cuddly wearable tech platform integrates sensors into its very fabric.

by Victoria Turk
Sep 30 2014, 9:00pm

The Beijing suit. Image: ByBorre

It's a rare example of wearable tech that actually sounds useful: This suit turns you into a walking air cleaner on the notoriously polluted streets of Beijing.

Dezeen reported that the BB.Suit is currently on show at Beijing Design Week, which sounds like an appropriate exhibition space given the city's notorious pollution problem. Project leader Borre Akkersdijk told me in a phone call from Beijing that they'd been developing the wearable suit for various applications and wanted to add something specific to the location. 

"I said, 'We have to do something with the air quality,'" Akkersdijk told me.

The suit, which looks like an oversized knitted onesie, was made by Dutch design company ByBorre and a host of collaborators: designer Martijn ten Bhomer from the Eindhoven University of Technology, developer Eva de Laat, Daan Spangenberg Graphics, StudioFriso, and Dutch tech site WANT.

Image: Benoit Florencon

It works by incorporating "cold plasma" technology developed by Squair into a node on the back of the suit.

According to Squair, the cold plasma block works by using a high voltage to split oxygen molecules—O2—into their separate atoms. These atoms are reactive, and want to bond with other things in the air, like dust particles, toxic gases, or bacteria. The dust particle example is perhaps easiest to envision: tiny dust particles are easy to inhale, but if oxygen atoms bond with them, they form into larger clusters that aren't so easily breathed in.

The suit also includes a sensor that measures the concentration of dangerous gases in the air. Of course, one person's gadget-suit isn't going to make any real impact on the city's concerning air quality (and Akkersdijk says it would be unaffordable to produce for sale right now anyway), but it's a novel concept of using wearable tech to both quantify and improve your immediate surroundings.

The SXSW suit. Image: ByBorre

The main point of the BB.Suit is to show how this kind of tech can be quite seamlessly integrated into clothing, rather than tacked on top or shoved in a pocket somewhere. Akkersdijk explained that an earlier version of the BB.Suit made for SXSW incorporated functionalities suitable for that environment: rather than air purifying tech it had wifi and GPS capabilities, and allowed people to upload songs to the "wearable platform."

He wore the suit to go to the festival's talks about wearable tech, with an eye to develop his design further. "And the more I saw, the more I realised that it's not wearable technology going around; it's carryable," he said. "Bracelets, helmets, glasses, you can carry it around—why is nobody really integrating it?"

The simple answer was that no one else seemed to have really figured out how to. Convinced they were onto something, Akkersdijk was keen to keep the exact applications of the platform flexible. The key point of his work is to sufficiently integrate the tech: for instance, electrical yarns are actually woven into the fabric rather than poked up a sleeve or tucked into a hidden compartment, and they're also washable.

Image: Benoit Florencon

Technology and textiles don't make a perfectly happy marriage yet, however, as crucial components like the chips aren't washable. At the moment they're sandwiched into the double knit fabric, which has a natural layer of space to fit them into.

While the thickness of the textile means it's still soft to wear, Akkersdijk is keen to see chips and sensors developed specifically for these kind of wearable applications. "They need to start to be flexible, and they need to be washable," he said. 

The designer envisages a future where wearable tech is incorporated into the pattern pieces of the regular fashion cycle rather than offered as clunky optional extras. Your regular clothes could be connected.

Ultimately, he imagines this kind of wearable tech platform usurping the need for devices. "Imagine that you don't need your wallet, you don't need your phone, you don't need your keys—if you give someone your hand you will swap your contact details," he suggested. "If you walk up to somebody that you really like it's like Tinder—it will notice on the body that you're excited."