(TMU) – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow with no end in sight in the foreseeable future, face masks have become an essential part of our daily lives. As a result, the market for protective face coverings has exponentially grown – with the demand for cloth, neoprene, disposable, reusable, valved and filtered masks continuing to grow.
And now, engineers have designed a smart facial mask that can help not only amplify voices muffled by the myriad protective masks, but can also translate speech into eight different languages.
This latest innovation is the work of Japanese startup Donut Robotics, which saw the new masked reality as a great opportunity to unveil its new high-tech mask that can boost communication and connectedness while also helping to make physical distancing easier.
The C-Face Smart Mask is connected to an integrated microphone that connects to the wearer’s smartphone through an app, and offers a suite of features. Not only can it amplify the wearer’s voice, but it can also transcribe dictation and translate speech into eight different languages (Chinese, English, French, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese).
And while the white plastic and silicone smart mask isn’t meant to offer protection against the coronavirus – as is clear from the breathing holes in the mask – the C-Mask is designed to be perfectly compatible with existing standard face masks.
The C-Mask relies on translation software that Donut Robotics originally developed for its Cinnamon robot, an AI-enabled bot that would assist international travelers with useful information and help them navigate Japanese airports .
But after the coronavirus pandemic virtually halted most international travel and led to the closure of Japan’s airport, the startup pivoted to applying its technology to face masks so that workers in various industries including healthcare could confidently and clearly communicate behind face coverings and barriers.
“We were running short of money and wondering how to keep the company going,” Donut Robotics CEO Taisuke Ono told CNN.
With face masks of various types flying off the shelves in unprecedented numbers, the company decided in June to monetize their new technology by launching a crowdsourcing campaign on Japanese fundraising platform Fundinno. The campaign was a major success, with 28 million yen ($265,000) in only 37 minutes.
“It was very surprising,” Ono said, “because it would usually take three or four months to get that kind of money.”
After another successful crowdfunding campaign in July, the company was able to raise another 56.6 million yen ($539,000), which the company plans to use to adapt their Japanese-focused software to the international market.
Ono believes that the first wave of 5,000 to 10,000 masks should be available in Japan by December for between $40 and $50, with plans to extend operations as soon as April 2021.
Ono hopes that with people struggling to abide by social distancing norms recommended by public health authorities, the new Bluetooth masks can allow for efficient communication in locales like office buildings and hospitals.
“We still have many situations where we have to meet in person,” he said. “In this new normal … the mask and the app are very helpful.”