‘Smart’ Face Mask Aims to Improve Communication in New Normal

    05 August 2020

    A Japanese company has created a "smart" mask that aims to improve communication for people wearing face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

    The use of face masks has become the new normal in parts of the world still struggling to reduce spread of the coronavirus. However, masks and other kinds of coverings can affect the quality of communication between wearers.

    It can be more difficult to hear voices through the coverings. Many business and public spaces also have social distancing barriers in place, which also make it harder for people to be heard and understood.

    The wearable electronic device is designed to help improve speech interactions in such conditions.

    Japanese startup Donut Robotics' c-mask and its mobile phone application is pictured during a demonstration in Tokyo, Japan June 23, 2020. Picture taken June 23, 2020. (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)
    Japanese startup Donut Robotics' c-mask and its mobile phone application is pictured during a demonstration in Tokyo, Japan June 23, 2020. Picture taken June 23, 2020. (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

    The Japanese startup company Donut Robotics calls its invention the "c-mask." The device is meant to fit over other kinds of face masks commonly worn by the public.

    The c-mask is made of soft plastic material. It contains a built-in microphone and has holes in the front to let air in. When it is turned on, the mask uses Bluetooth technology to connect to a mobile device.

    An app then helps users perform several actions, including turning speech into text, completing telephone calls and making the user's voice louder. The device can also translate a person's voice from Japanese into eight other languages.

    The engineers who developed the smart mask had already built robots for use in Japanese airports to provide guidance and translation services to travelers.

    But with the travel industry currently suffering big losses, the future of the robots became unclear. So, engineers sought to come up with a new product to fill a need.

    Taisuke Ono is the head of Donut Robotics. He told the Reuters news agency, "We worked hard for years to develop a robot and we have used that technology to create a product that responds to how the coronavirus has reshaped society."

    Ono told international broadcaster CNN that the company was able to raise money to develop the smart mask through a campaign on the Japanese crowdfunding service Fundinno.

    He noted that the effort raised $265,000 in just the first 37 minutes. "It was very surprising, because it would usually take three or four months to get that kind of money," Ono said.

    The company produced a working model of the mask within a month by using software developed for its other robot products. The mask design was similar to one created years ago by one of the company's engineers that mapped facial muscles to interpret speech.

    Ono said the company plans to ship its first 5,000 c-masks to buyers in Japan starting in September. He is also looking to sell the devices in China, the United States and Europe and says he has received strong interest in the product.

    Donut Robotics plans to sell the devices for about $40 per mask, in an effort to capture a mass market that did not exist until a few months ago.

    "We hope that our device will be useful in a society where people naturally practice social distancing," the company states on its website.

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from Reuters, CNN and Donut Robotics. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    mask – n. a covering for the face

    interaction – n. the act of talking or doing other things with people

    app – n. a program for a smartphone or other device that performs a special function

    text – n. written words

    translate – n. to change written or spoken words from one language to another

    society n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

    interpret v. to explain the meaning of something in a certain way