Project Intrepid

New York

13 April 2018

On a muggy morning in July, 18-year-old Manisha Mohan from Chandigarh waved goodbye to her parents and boarded a train to Chennai, where she was enrolled on an automotive engineering course. Though she was just another student heading to university, the 36-hour journey was perilous – a woman is raped every two minutes in India, and only 6 per cent of those attacks are reported. Just after the doors of the train closed, a man grabbed Mohan’s breast and disappeared into the crowd.

This was 2012, the same year as the infamous New Delhi rape case, in which a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was thrown from the bus where she was gang raped and left to die from her injuries. Brutal and tragic, the case galvanised a movement in India to confront a deep-seated culture of violence against women, and enabled the public to pose difficult questions as to why the police or judicial system could not adequately protect them. Because the Indian press is not allowed to publish a rape victim’s name, the young New Delhi woman became known as Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”, and her life and death have come to symbolise the struggle against sexual crimes. What Nirbhaya’s story brought to the fore was the extent to which a woman’s freedom and agency are disregarded. Not only are Indian women routinely expected to exist indoors, in private or domestic spheres, but they are also required to dress modestly and cover up. When women are abused, they are often blamed for having brought violence upon themselves.

“I wanted to make the next Nasa lunar dune buggy,” Mohan tells me with a smile. Bright, ambitious and an activist and provocateur by nature, Mohan fought for a place in SRM University in Chennai’s male-dominated school of automotive engineering. She was continually frustrated by limitations placed on her because of her gender. Women, especially female students, were not allowed to work beyond afternoon hours. “I was considered a liability to the institution and was expected to stay in my dorm after 6.30pm.” As one of three women in a class of nearly 200, she found the deck was stacked against her. She tried and failed to receive special permission to work after hours. She devised elaborate escape plans to participate in projects alongside her male colleagues. Her professors questioned why she was there. Once, she says, an adviser even tried to molest her.

The ethic was not to complain. “I realised I had no evidence, no mechanism to do anything. Even if I shout and scream and howl, who is going to believe me?” Mohan tells me. As protesters in India took to the streets and hunger strikes were organised in support of Nirbhaya, Mohan began exploring the idea that technology could be used as a means for empowerment. Wearable tech in particular intrigued her and she saw its potential for giving voice to those who might otherwise not have one. This goal, combined with her skills in human-computer interaction, landed Mohan a spot in the highly competitive MIT Media Lab. She moved to the United States to begin her course in 2015, the same year that an all-star swimmer at Stanford University raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Though convicted, he was released from prison after serving a three‑month sentence.

Although each culture has different ways of defining and dealing with them, sexual abuse, assault and harassment are regarded as some of the most common human-rights violations in the world by the United Nations. Taking her new home country as a starting place, Mohan realised her efforts could go far: in the US, a person is sexually abused every 98 seconds, and every 16 hours a woman is murdered by her romantic partner or ex-partner. Mohan and her team began researching sexual violence on college campuses, then conducted extensive interviews with victims of sexual assault, including sex workers and children.

What Mohan and her team came up with was Project Intrepid, a wearable technology “intended to detect, communicate, and prevent sexual assault”. The object itself is unassuming. A kind of smart tape, Intrepid is made from a couple of conductive layers and hydrogel. It can adhere to any material and be placed into any article of clothing – a shirt, bra or knickers for example. The device is designed to memorise the way one usually dresses and is capable of telling the difference between a wearer who is voluntarily taking their clothes off and someone else forcibly doing so. What’s more, Intrepid will work even when the victim is unconscious or unable to fight back.

Connected to the wearer’s phone via Bluetooth, Intrepid has its own downloadable app and works in two modes: active and passive. In a passive scenario, it’s assumed that the victim is conscious and can activate a kind of panic button, located elsewhere on a piece of clothing. This button sounds an alarm and notifies a “safety circle” of five pre-programmed friends, family members or potentially the police. The active mode is designed for people who might be unconscious or even for those who may be bed-ridden, disabled or elderly. In this case, Intrepid triggers the safety responses without input. It sends a text message to the user’s phone (“Do you consent? Select Yes or No”). If the wearer does not respond within 30 seconds, the pre-programmed safety circle will be notified and the geo-location of the wearer shared. The app will also record audio of encounters when there’s no timely response from the wearer, which can be used in court, should there be legal proceedings.

A major issue for consumers of wearable technologies in general – and one that Mohan was highly motivated to address – is that they are designed to be conspicuous. Unlike Google Glass, Nike FuelBand or the Apple Watch, Mohan’s team wasn’t interested in creating something that would display its cutting-edge technology. In fact, they wanted to make their wearables inconspicuous to prevent them from being ripped off during an attack. What’s more, Mohan and her team hoped to make a product that would be useful regardless of what the user might choose to wear. “We knew we wanted to make something that was independent of the way you dress and not put you in any particular form of clothing,” Mohan explains. The team began researching sensors, stickers and clip-ons – technology that could be integrated into or on top of a variety of clothing forms and materials. In testing Intrepid, she had users dress in their regular clothing and go about their usual business. “Users evaluated the appeal, functionality, cultural sensitivity and provided feedback on their general sense of security,” Mohan explains. “Most of them forgot Intrepid was there. A few even put their clothing in the laundry. That’s how we learned that Intrepid could survive the washing machine.”

By creating an inconspicuous wearable that could be placed inside any garment – anything, as Mohan says “from a burka to a bikini” – the Intrepid team wanted to reject the idea that if a victim dresses a certain way, they would be “asking for it”. The notion that clothing itself causes abuse resurfaced recently, when fashion designer Donna Karan weighed in on the allegations made by dozens of women that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed, assaulted or raped them. Speaking from the red carpet of the CinéFashion film awards in October 2017, Karan said: “How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?” Karan has since apologised. But her words struck a painful chord for many who read them as callous, wildly naive statements that shift blame away from the people doing the harassing and onto the people they harass.

So where does wearable tech fit into the idea that fashion itself can instigate abuse? In the case of Intrepid, Mohan sees her design as a mechanism for protection, agency and empowerment; an opportunity for women to be in public wearing whatever they want. The word intrepid means “fearless” or “adventurous”. Mohan wanted to name her device in a way that would pay homage to Nirbhaya, but she also wanted to imbue users with a sense of confidence, strength and independence. “We don’t need bodyguards,” Mohan explains. “Women should be able to protect themselves and stand alone for themselves, and that’s what I want this product to do.”

Redefining power and personal responsibility are ideas Mohan has explored in her other work too. Her speculative design project Cultural Lens, for example, makes use of Microsoft HoloLens smartglasses to implement augmented reality. By changing the visual field of the wearer, Cultural Lens reverses traditional gender responsibilities around clothing and modesty. If a man is uncomfortable with the way a woman is dressed, instead of asking her to change the way she looks, the system changes the way he sees. “Instead of forcing women to wear clothing styles that are deemed acceptable by the public, Cultural Lens allows members of the public who might be offended – by, for example, perceived immodesty or improper etiquette – to have the freedom to selectively filter the appearance of the women they see in public to conform literally to their view of how women should look,” Mohan writes in the design spec. In other words, when a man puts on his Cultural Lens goggles, he could programme them to place a digital hijab on every woman he sees. Creating something for a man to put on so a woman can wear less has earned Mohan a reputation as a kind of enfant terrible of the engineering world. Her designs invert ideas of responsibility, enabling the empowerment of women through one of the mechanisms that many see as holding them back: clothing.

As it now stands, Project Intrepid is still very much what its title suggests – a project. Although it has not yet been picked up for manufacture and distribution, the fact that Intrepid has been widely covered in the press indicates a heightened interest in wearables being used less as Cyborg‑like accessories and more as intimate tools that can implement social change. “I consider sexual assault a disease in our society,” says Mohan, “which needs an immediate cure.” As in so much of the tech world, problem‑solving here seems focused on finding a rapid solution to a need, rather than concentrating on a longer-term or more holistic approach. After all, neither Cultural Lens nor Project Intrepid attempt to combat the root causes of the issues. Focusing technology on the symptoms rather than the illness seems particularly well-suited to the tech culture of making something work “in real time”.

Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking aspects of Project Intrepid is its ability to document and record violent encounters. In both passive and active modes, Intrepid records the exchange, pin-points the geo-location of the wearer and calls the police. What the Weinstein scandal and the subsequent viral hashtag #MeToo revealed is the terrifying extent and magnitude of sexual harassment, and the fact that this is an issue not limited to the Hollywood casting couch. In a recent article for The Guardian, the writer and third-wave feminist Naomi Wolf argued for the importance of women reporting instances of abuse, which she says have too long been swept under the rug “because our power brokers want to keep sexual assault in the realm of the ‘uncomfortable’ or the ‘disgusting’”. Wolf instead calls for victims of abuse to “move this discussion out of the realm of emotion and outrage and novels of manners, and into the arena of crime”. Perhaps Intrepid, with its ability to generate legally viable documentation is a means for shifting sexual assault from the realm of lived experience and into cold, hard evidence, from a cultural episode to a criminal event.

Of course, upholding such recordings as criminal evidence will be another turning point in the prevention of sexual abuse. In 2015, the Italian model Ambra Gutierrez wore a hidden recording device to document the fact that an assault had occurred in a previous meeting with Weinstein. The disturbing transcript was published in The New Yorker in October of this year. But although police fitted her out for the wire tap, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office did not pursue the case because, a statement said, it “couldn’t establish intent”. Among the deluge of sexual assault accusations and non-disclosure agreements that were reported in the weeks following the release of the transcript, it was also revealed that Vance was gifted $10,000 for his re-election campaign by one of Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers.

For years – for centuries even – and across the world, the physical, economic and cultural subjugation of women has registered as something like background noise. Designed technologies like Project Intrepid have the capacity to change the frequency of such attacks and give voice to victims of sexual abuse – but to really make them work, we will need to tune in and listen. After all, the ability to speak out is one kind of power; being heard is another.