More than 83,000 people in 56 countries across the globe have contracted coronavirus. The World Health Organization has updated its global risk assessment of the virus from “high” to “very high.” Thousands of people have died, while major industries have been disrupted in the virus’s wake. And in China, where coronavirus struck first, major city centers have become ghost towns as both public fears and government quarantines keep people at home.
Is there any way to live your life with any sense of normalcy as an epidemic like the coronavirus spreads? Chinese architect Dayong Sun believes, maybe. The founder of the firm Penda has developed a concept for a wearable shield, which, he says, could be deployed at the mass scale during epidemics.
Called Be a Batman, the system is inspired in part by the natural world and in part by the built environment. Sun notes that bats may be a source of the coronavirus outbreak, yet they seem immune to its attacks. Their bodies get hot while flying, allowing them to fight off the virus through natural activity rather than a fever.
For the coronavirus shield, Sun has constructed a lightweight system, loosely similar to the lightweight wings that allow bats to fly. Users don a backpack with carbon fiber skeleton frame. They hold a PVC film, which wraps around them like a jet cockpit, or personal bubble.
In some architectural philosophy, the building is considered a third skin. (A person’s skin is the first skin. A person’s clothes are the second skin.) Sun views the PVC shield as a wearable building, which creates a physical barrier between you and viruses that might be flying at your body. For added protection, UV lights sterilize the surface of the plastic.
The suit is not airtight, but it does follow some best practices in epidemic response. Even real hazmat suits are often shielded more in the front than the back, prioritizing head-on assaults simply because our eyes and mouths are the most susceptible gateways to infections. It’s still unclear exactly how coronavirus spreads, but the CDC believes it’s “person-to-person“; spread, in other words, by touching one another or touching the same thing, then touching your eyes or mouth. It’s not something you can catch simply by breathing the same air as someone who is infected. So while it’s not airtight, at minimum, Be a Batman keeps your hands to yourself, inside your own vehicle at all times.
As a larger-term goal, Sun believes the PVC could have a full augmented reality interface, per what he loosely calls “a tiny mobile space for special needs”—which I imagine to be like a little office cubicle you can carry with you. But in the immediate, what’s so compelling about his design is that it’s entirely manufacturable. Neither carbon fiber nor PVC are rare materials, and they are both so lightweight that you’d barely notice this system sitting on your shoulders. In essence, Sun has conceptualized the hazmat suit for the urban commuter—a backpack that gives you bat powers (well, not counting flight or sonar).
If your company is interested in bringing the suit to market, Sun is offering the design and his own consultation free.