July 16, 2020

The next generation of face masks could be see-through and self-cleaning. (And they might not fog your glasses.)

Daily Briefing

    The global coronavirus pandemic has made face masks, previously uncommon among Americans as everyday wear, an essential item for all. Now, tech companies are looking to capitalize on the public's growing use of face masks, creating high-tech masks that can assist wearers with everyday tasks and more.

    Your top resources for Covid-19 response and resilience

    The masks of the future

    Here are some ways face masks might evolve to become more hi-tech, and potentially easier to use.

    A mask that can help you communicate

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    Japanese technology company Donut Labs currently is developing the C-Face smart mask, which is a white, plastic smart mask that can help transcribe the wearer's muffled speech. C-Face works as a casing that attaches on top of a softer mask. Once attached, a smartphone app connects with C-Face via Bluetooth and can either amplify a user's voice via his or her smartphone or transcribe the user's speech into text messages for others to read. The app also can translate the wearer's words into eight different languages.

    People have consistently complained that face masks make it difficult to communicate, but the C-Face mask "responds to how the coronavirus has reshaped society," according to Taisuke Ono, CEO of Donut Robotics.

    The company said it plans to ship 5,000 preorders of C-Face masks to buyers in Japan this September, and it plans to eventually expand the masks' technology to "image systems," such as augmented and virtual reality systems.

    A mask that doesn't get in the way—or fog your glasses

    SM Yuen from Atlas Medical-Derma-Regen Clinic has developed the VX mask, which is a small mask that sticks to a user's face with adhesive, rather than using straps to tie the mask to a user's head. The strapless mask could allow people to keep their masks on during beauty and doctor's appointments, where straps could get in the way. The mask also is less likely to fog up wearers' glasses, CNA Lifestyle reports.

    The adhesive can affix the mask to a user's face for up to eight hours and can stay sticky enough to be re-used up to six times.

    Masks that kills germs

    Some companies are working to develop masks that not only filter out microbes that can transmit the pathogens, but kill certain pathogens, as well.

    For example, a Swiss manufacturer has developed the Livinguard mask, which is made from a treated textile that the company claims can kill up to 99.9% of novel coronavirus microbes. The company alleges that the mask's positively charged fabric can destroy microbes living on the mask's surface, so that users can touch the mask without potentially transferring the virus onto their hands and other surfaces.

    Similarly, Israeli manufacturer Sonovia has developed the Sonomask, which is coated with zinc oxide-nano-particles that can destroy certain bacteria and viruses that come in contact with the mask's surface. Sonovia claims that evidence has shown the mask can destroy up to 99% of viruses similar to the novel coronavirus.

    See-through masks

    Mask-wearers have complained that, because typical cotton or paper masks block their mouths, the masks can inhibit both verbal and nonverbal communication and make it particularly difficult to use facial recognition technology. To address those issues, Redcliffe Medical Devices is developing a rubber, see-through face covering called the Leaf mask.

    The Leaf mask, which was the first see-through mask to be registered with FDA, includes an exhaust valve that releases air when the wearer exhales, a carbon filter for odor removal, a HEPA filter that removes small microns, and a UVC light for self-cleaning purposes. The Leaf Pro model even comes with an app that lets the wearer control the mask's ventilation, according to CNA Lifestyle.

    Masks that self-clean

    Like the Leaf Pro mask, inventors are working to develop other face coverings that can disinfect themselves.

    Chinese tech company Huami, for instance, has developed a prototype for the self-cleaning Aeri mask. The mask—which also is transparent—features built-in UV lights that can disinfect the mask's filters when the mask is connected to a power supply. Huami has said it could be up to one year before the mask hits the market, however. 

    Yair Ein-Eli, a scientist from Technion–Israel Institute for Technology, has developed a prototype for a mask that would self-clean when connected to a phone charger. The mask resembles N95 masks commonly used by health care workers, but it features a USB port where users can connect the mask with a power source. The mask contains carbon fibers that are heated to up to 70 degrees Celsius to disinfect the mask, which takes between 15 and 30 minutes, Ein-Eli said.

    Ein-Eli intends to make the mask available to health care workers before releasing them to the general public (Khim, CNA Lifestyle, 7/5; Wilson, Fast Company, 7/14; Kelly/Tomoshige, Reuters, 6/26).

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