Rapper will.i.am has gotta feeling.
The founding member of the Black Eyed Peas was cavorting on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards last year during the pandemic, wearing an apparatus that appeared to be a cross between a gas mask and an alien space helmet. This came as no surprise as subtlety was never the strong suit of this American rapper, who has cultivated an eccentric fashion sense that has been the subject of contentious debate among menswear pundits.
The frontman of the polarising pop-rap outfit, whose full name is William Adams, is disinclined to indulge in the sort of luxury buying that fashion houses seek to nurture. Instead, he revels in the freedom of asymmetrical droopy pants, off-kilter silhouettes and oversized sunglasses in oddball shapes that channel 3D specs. The face contraption he wore at the awards show was just another showpiece from his maximalist wardrobe centred around “fashionology”, a portmanteau word he had coined that combines fashion and technology.
The outlandish face mask piqued the interest of Marc Benioff, chief executive of cloud computing company Salesforce. Avid techie will.i.am — who was director of creative innovation at Intel at one point — has been a regular at Salesforce’s Dreamforce tech conference since 2010. Impressed by will.i.am’s attempt at devising a futuristic face mask, Benioff recommended that he collaborate with Darius Adamczyk, chief executive of Honeywell — the multinational manufacturing and engineering conglomerate responsible for making millions of N95 face masks over the last year.
On April 8, a “smart mask” named Xupermask (pronounced “super mask”) was unveiled.
A face mask that looks like something straight out of a movie seems like a speculative prototype that may never see the light of day. But this conceptual breakthrough was conceived by Jose Fernandez, the Hollywood costume designer who created the SpaceX suits for Elon Musk and worked on superhero blockbusters such as Black Panther, The Avengers, Spider-Man and X-Men 2.
Of course, the US$299 (RM1,225) Xupermask wields more “power” than your ordinary pale-blue gauze held by flimsy straps. Made of silicon with athletic mesh fabric on the sides, it cups the bottom half of the face and comes with three dual-speed fans, a Honeywell HEPA filtration system, noise-cancelling headphones, LED lights for night-time, a rechargeable battery and a 5.0 Bluetooth function. The mask with abilities to make calls and play music — already trumping the cool factor of a Stormtrooper’s white-clad headgear — is a force to be reckoned with.
“We are living in sci-fi times,” said will.i.am. “The pandemic [feels like] a friggin’ movie. But we are wearing masks from yesterday’s movie. So I wanted to make a mask to fit the era that we’re in.”
The world of technology is astute at sensing opportunity and the Xupermask is a good example of the industry rising to the occasion, elevating a humble product that had been largely unchanged for years.
Meanwhile, innovators are incubating new face mask ideas that possess some scientific rigour.
Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is developing a mask designed to kill viruses. Running on a nine-volt battery, the mask incorporates a copper mesh that can be heated to a temperature high enough to deactivate viruses, allowing one to breathe medically sterile air.
Applying the same concept but taking a different approach, UK-based Medi-Immune Ltd uses UVC light to sterilise air drawn into a small chamber that can be worn on a belt or in a backpack. A hose from the chamber is plugged into the mask, while a fan in the mask maintains positive pressure to ensure zero leakage.
If the mask we wear leaves behind evidence of infection (or not), why not use it to test for Covid-19? Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have already discovered ways to integrate a freeze-dried diagnostic Covid-19 test into a face mask, which will give you a diagnosis in 90 minutes or less. After the face mask is worn for at least 30 minutes, a person can puncture the blister pack mounted on the mask to release the water needed to rehydrate and run the reactions. The test results would be indicated by one or two lines, similar to a pregnancy test.
Once used to just shield us from diseases or fend off the unwelcome gaze of strangers, the face mask has come a long way — from being a symbol of protest and visual commentary embraced by fashion to now, a virus’ avatar. With face coverings here to stay for the foreseeable future, consumers will be demanding more than cheap throwaways. One can tighten the rules of mask-wearing but never limit experimentation and the freedom to self-protect with flair.
Creativity never goes into lockdown. Here are the next-generation masks — some of which will hit the market soon — that can help us step up the fight against the pandemic.
Amazfit Aeri Design
Chinese company Huami solves the problem of unlocking your device while wearing a face mask. Sporting a transparent design made from anti-fog material, the Amazfit Aeri makes it easier for your phone to detect your features via FaceID. The mask will also be equipped with UV light for self-disinfection.
The full-face modular mask from Blanc is an accessory of which even French electronic duo Daft Punk would approve. Keeping your identity secure behind its opaque changeable front panels, the mask offers purified air enhanced by two highly efficient reusable and replaceable HEPA filters.
Disposable masks are not friendly to the environment. Hence, Italian company CLIU has designed a sustainable version that not only protects you against viruses but also allows people, especially those with hearing difficulties, to grasp any urgent information through its transparent protective screens.
This article first appeared on May 3, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.