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The face mask of the future

Bluetooth, in-built cooling, nanotech filters—as we learn to live with covid-19, what sort of transformation will the face mask undergo to adapt to human demands?

The CLIU face mask has a transparent design
The CLIU face mask has a transparent design (Photo courtesy: CLIU)

How effective is a face mask? In a recent tweet, Rich Davis, director of microbiology at the Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Washington, demonstrated the difference between wearing a mask and not wearing one with the help of a simple experiment. He sneezed, sang, talked and then coughed towards an agar culture plate with a face mask on. He then repeated the exercise without a mask. “What does a mask do? Blocks respiratory droplets coming from your mouth and throat…. Bacteria colonies show where droplets landed. A mask blocks virtually all of them." His tweet, which was accompanied by photographs of the culture plates, has garnered more than 334,000 likes.

With the total number of confirmed cases worldwide crossing the 13 million barrier, one thing is certain: Covid-19 is here to stay till an effective medical intervention, in the form of a life-saving vaccine, is found. Until then, what is also here to stay is the face mask. Recent reports of the virus being airborne in certain indoor settings only reaffirm this.

But as we learn to live with covid-19, how will the face mask evolve and adapt to human needs? What sort of transformation will it undergo to become a lifestyle essential? More importantly, how will it affect human expression and communication?

Beak masks were used by plague doctors in 17th century Europe.
Beak masks were used by plague doctors in 17th century Europe. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

We may get some answers from the mask’s journey over the centuries. Writing in a recent post for The Mask—Arrayed, a project that explores the material, technological and cultural aspects of the face mask, Jan Henning, a historianof technology and medicine at the University of Toronto, notes that masks are some of the earliest human artefacts. “One of the oldest recorded cave paintings, for instance, depicts a man wearing a deer mask," he writes. Henning goes on to describe the history of the mask through a spectrum of examples: how “theater masks were central to Ancient Roman and Greek plays" and how their use “in mining demonstrates how perceptions of risk and safety changed over time". Death masks “facilitated the deceased’s smooth transition into the afterlife". Beak masks were used by a small fraction of plague doctors in 17th century Europe and were stuffed with aromatic substances such as myrrh and mint, transforming foul smells into fresh scents. The idea of stuffing the masks with aromatic substances wasn’t purely ornamental. It was thought to protect doctors from inhaling “pestilential miasma", or disease-ridden air. As Henning explains, “The transformative meaning of masks is closely related to their protective function."

Anuj Prasad, founder and CEO, Desmania Design, a studio based in Manesar, Haryana, says face masks have always come into vogue during an epidemic or disease outbreak. “I think the phenomena of masks is the template around it: which is protection from the pandemic. But the phenomena of face masks as an accessory, a wearable, is something which might continue. The new normal is to own a set of masks, using them as and when the need arises."

The ongoing pandemic has seen the global death toll crossing 578,000. Even earlier, though, 92% of the world’s population was exposed to dangerously polluted air, according to UN data. Every year, almost nine million people die prematurely owing to air pollution. And as people become more comfortable with face masks, says Prasad, protection from pollution will be an important offshoot. “Pollution is going to continue because the way we live is not going to change very soon.... The usage (of masks) will become larger but the function may not remain the same."

Designers are moving beyond the endless debate on which mask works best. And, no, they are not looking at gold- or diamond-studded masks. But masks will be customized for people and age groups—a mask that works for the elderly might not for millennials. Technology will be used to make “smarter" masks: This may involve the integration of smart voice assistants (imagine an Alexa-enabled smart mask), Bluetooth, cooling techniques and innovations enabling people to talk freely through a mask.

The Ao Air Atmos creates a positive, clean air environment inside the mask
The Ao Air Atmos creates a positive, clean air environment inside the mask (Photo: Ao Air)

The need for a lifestyle product could see technologies like bone-conduction headphones paired with masks. Transparent designs could also be in vogue, with masks that not only protect a user but also project their smile. From interchangeable colour skins to rechargeable batteries that power a mask, exciting evolution awaits.

“All these technologies are like a palette for designers. We want to see what can be included (in masks) to improve the quality of life for people," says Prasad, adding that accessorizing and segmenting them for different users will be key in the coming years. “Masks will not be purely functional. If you have to make it a part of lifestyle, then one has to think of the aesthetics and ergonomics. When running shoes were made a little more than 50 years back, they didn’t have style, but they have evolved into what you see today. A similar evolution will happen with masks as a wearable," says Prasad.

The need for nanotech

A mask may give you an added sense of protection— apart from the surface area it covers, however, what actually protects you is the quality of the fabric: the material used and its filtration capabilities. Surgical masks, for example, protect against some large airborne particles. Others, like N94 or N95 masks, filter out up to 94-95% of fine particles and dust. But what would work with the coronavirus?

Research shows that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes covid-19, is approximately 0.125 micron (125 nanometres) in diameter. To put this in perspective, an average strand of human hair is 60-120 microns thick. PM 2.5 particles, a common measure of air pollution, are less than 2.5 microns in diameter.

To keep out something this small, novel mask concepts are turning to finer techniques: nanotech and nano-fibres. “Look at where we are moving towards," says Jai Dhar Gupta, an environmentalist and CEO of the clean air solutions company Nirvana Being. “In theory, we are moving towards cleaner fuel but that also means the emissions will become smaller. Your HEPA or N95 mask only filters down to 0.3 microns, that too if you are wearing your mask correctly. You can’t fight a 120 nanometre problem with a 300 nanometre solution. My prediction is that our emissions, viruses, bacteria, pollutants will continue to get smaller. That’s why I believe that the now and the future is nanotechnology."

“Not only do you get better filtration, you also get lower (air) resistance, which is very important," says Gupta, whose company recently introduced an antiviral and anti-pollution mask which uses a unique nanotech filter. “From a covid-19 perspective (two things are important in a mask), viral filtration efficiency and breathing resistance. There’s no point in having a mask if you are not going to be able to keep it on your face for more than 5 minutes."

This use of nanotechis a growing trend around the world. Earlier this year, a team of researchers at KAIST, formerly known as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, in Daejeon, South Korea, developed a nano-filtered face mask that can be washed and disinfected.

Similarly, newer materials and coatings are emerging. A recent article in the Scientific American magazine explained how researchers at the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering at Indiana University have developed an “electroceutical fabric" that can zap the coronavirus and render it ineffective on masks and other pieces of clothing made from it. Some smart masks can even be plugged into a charger and disinfected with the help of UV technology.

Gupta points out yet another important factor as we move towards a future where masks will be essential: the throwaway consumer culture, especially for life-saving items. Multiple mask brands today promise a reusability span of up to almost 30 washes and hundreds of breathing hours. That, however, hasn’t prevented the creation of a biomedical waste problem, which will only grow as the demand for protective equipment, including masks, increases.

Gupta says future designs will have to maintain a fine balance between science and sustainability. Masks will not only have to be reused, they will also need to be designed with materials that have a low impact on the environment. “One of the worst things to come out of this pandemic is going to be the amount of microplastic that is going to go into our air, food and water. All PPE (personal protective equipment), except perhaps for your latex gloves, are disposable microplastics," he says. “The reason you are having to put on a mask is because there’s an environmental problem: whether it’s pollution or a virus. If you still ignore this and use disposable masks, it doesn’t make sense. You can’t solve one environmental problem by creating a bigger one."

The face masks of the future will have to be about more than just the right fit; they will have to be technologically safe and sustainably sound.


Concept design by Zachary Massos and Eitan Adika
Concept design by Zachary Massos and Eitan Adika


This concept design by two New York-based industrial designers draws inspiration from bone-conduction headphones and sunglasses

One of the biggest concerns with face masks is the effect on human interaction. When you cover your face, communication is bound to take a hit. This prompted two industrial designers in New York to come up with a unique concept. “I thought of ways to incorporate sound or music while not impairing the users’ hearing since they will need to listen to their surroundings or even other people, because masks are needed in social settings. This made me immediately think of bone conduction since it’s ideal for this application," says Zachary Massos, who designed the concept with his friend and co-worker, Eitan Adika.

Massos, who is the lead industrial designer for Jetson Electric, a leading hoverboard and scooter company based in Brooklyn, New York, says the idea of this “bone-conduction headphone mask" was also inspired by simple lifestyle products like sunglasses. “I largely wanted the product to feel lightweight on the user, so I used sunglasses as a reference for the form and how the user would wear the device—since they are a product that people wear for long periods with minimal to no irritation," he says on email.

He envisions the product as functioning very much like a standard bone-conduction or regular Bluetooth headphone. Instead of the eardrums, bone-conduction headphones send vibrations to the inner ear through the skull. This not only transmits sound but also leaves a user’s ears free to hear ambient noises. A filter would be encased in the mask, and it would include a built-in microphone, battery indicator and power and volume buttons. While Massos and Adika are not planning production in the near future, the former says he would love to seea major audio company come out with a similar product. “It is definitely something I would invest in and use myself."

CLIU’S see-through face mask
CLIU’S see-through face mask


CLIU’s see-through face design allows users to express themselves

In a recent article for The New York Times, journalist Jacey Fortin posed an interesting question. As many of us step out wearing face masks, we are all “missing a small but important social lubricant: the smile". “In anxious times, we may want to put neighbours, mail carriers, store clerks and others at ease with a casual smile. But if smiles can’t be seen, how do you greet people? How do you reassure them?" Fortin asks.

A team of engineers and creative professionals in Milan, Italy, has come up with a solution. Their design, CLIU, is a face mask designed with a transparent face opening, keeping in mind a “new form of normalcy". CLIU team member Fabrizio Lipani explains on email how the lockdown period spurred the entire team to design the safest, most innovative, and most beautiful mask ever. “Covid-19 represented the first reason to imagine a mask but CLIU will also protect (users) from the pollution. It will always be useful."

Apart from a magnetic frame and anti-fog film system for the transparent opening, CLIU is also a “smart" mask that can be synced with a smartphone app. “CLIU offers the hi-tech version with integrated Bluetooth, microphone and GPS. Thanks to the dedicated app, you can check your CLIU to ensure it is functioning correctly. Additionally, you can check the filter’s consumption status and access real-time information on your health, such as heart beats and breathing quality," adds Lipani, who says there will be two versions of the mask: a basic model and a pro, more hi-tech one. CLIU also uses a system of interchangeable activated carbon filters to protect users from pollen and viruses. The most striking feature is its value to the environment. It is designed using materials that can be recycled easily. “We should be ready to deliver the first mask in November but I think we will be faster," says Lipani. “The production will start as (soon as) we reach the goal of €100,000 (around 84 lakh) on the crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo," he adds. The mask can be pre-ordered on the platform, at a discounted price, for €29 (basic model).

The Aō Air Atmos
The Aō Air Atmos


The Aō Air Atmos, with a transparent design that will allow people to see your face, defies the conventional notion of a tight-fit mask

One of the most eye-catching pieces of tech at CES 2020, the annual technology trade show held in Las Vegas every January, was Aō Air’s facewear solution, the Atmōs. This futuristic-looking face mask defies the conventional notion of a tight-fit mask. It relies on “PositivAir" technology—yet to be patented—that uses small fans and pre-filters to create a positive pressure clean air environment inside the mask. According to its website, this system allows clean, cool air to escape the mask around the face, creating a continuous, one-way outflow that keeps the ambient air out. The company has also teamed up with BreezoMeter, a provider of real-time and street-level air quality data, to keep users informed of the air pollution around them.

The pre-filters remove big particulates before an active nano-filter takes care of pollen and dust. But will it offer protection against a virus? According to the FAQ section: “The Atmōs will protect against some bacteria and some viruses, however it has been designed for protection against particulate matter and not for protection against viruses and bacteria. The Atmōs is not 100% effective against airborne pathogens."

Powered by a rechargeable Li-ion battery, the mask can also be connected to an app to access more information on its status, filters, battery and respiratory data. It stands out owing to a transparent design that not only sits on the bridge of the nose but allows people to see your face. It remains to be seen how the Atmōs adapts to the complexities of covid-19. As of now, it is available for pre-order on its official website for $350 (around 26,000).



This mask uses an air filtration system that relies on industrial grade, replaceable filters

It’s dubbed the world’s most compact air purification system, one that can block harmful chemicals too, but what makes the ATMOBLUE different from your average face mask? By using replaceable H13 HEPA filters, this smart purifier is capable of blocking 99.97% of particulates. This includes bacteria, viruses, pollen, pollutants, smoke, micro-dust and odour.

ATMOBLUE was originally envisioned for PM 2.5 particles. Now, it comes with in-built mask controls, app support and centrifugal fans to create positive air pressure inside the mask. Excess air or “positive air" is produced and constantly pushed into the mask and then out through its vents. There are multiple airflow settings that can be toggled by users.

Depending on usage and fan speed, ATMOBLUE can function for 3-5 hours at a time. Fortunately, it’s rechargeable through USB. With the ATMOBLUE app, users can keep an eye on information like filter life, personalize airflow settings and even check the air quality index in their area.

In terms of design and aesthetics, ATMOBLUE, which starts at $149 (around 11,200) on Indiegogo, relies on interchangeable skins for customization features. The product currently comes in smoke, pearl, cement grey and light pink colour configurations and weighs just 190g. A patented head strap ensures the weight doesn’t put too much pressure on the neck, allowing for a greater degree of comfort and flexibility.

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