With face masks now mandated in public in many countries around the world, a Japanese robotics company has designed a new high-tech mask to try and answer the uniquely current challenge of social distancing: protect the wearer while ensuring clear and understandable communication.
Hooked up to an app (as most such things are these days), Donut Robotics’ C-Face Smart mask transcribes dictation, amplifies your voice, and translates speech into eight different languages.
Japan based Donut Robotics has developed the ‘c-mask,’ a smart device that fits over a standard face mask and can transmit messages, make calls and translate from Japanese into eight other languages https://t.co/5YN3e9NL1Q pic.twitter.com/vPRgpGxiOQ
— Reuters (@Reuters) July 1, 2020
It’s not a perfect catch-all solution, admittedly: designed with cutouts on its front for breathability, the smart mask doesn’t offer protection against the coronavirus. Rather, the mask is designed to be worn over a standard face mask, according to company CEO Taisuke Ono.
Made of white plastic and silicone, the mask’s embedded microphone connects to the wearer’s smartphone via a Bluetooth chip, which Ono claims can connect to smartphones up to 10m away. Its system translates between Japanese and English, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Spanish and French. The translation software was initially developed for a robot named Cinnamon, but was readapted for the face mask after the pandemic put the robot project on hold. The robot was selected in 2016 by the Haneda Robotics Lab initiative, which sought robots to serve visitors at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.
According to the initiative, the Cinnamon prototype was selected because of its appealing aesthetics and user-friendly design, and its software which performs well in noisy environments.
¥Ono boasts that the software is “better than the Google API (application programming interface), or other popular technologies”. The Japanese-specialized software uses machine learning developed with the help of translation experts.
On the launch of its fundraiser on Japanese crowdfunding platform Fundinno in June, Donut Robotics raised a whopping ¥28 million (US$265,000) in 37 minutes, an amount that Ono says would “usually take three or four months to raise”. A second round in July raised a further ¥56.6 million (US$539,000).
The company is currently developing translation software for the international market, and has partnered with an unnamed Tokyo-based company in Tokyo to scale up production.
The mask’s first wave of distribution is expected to take place in Japan, with 5,000 to 10,000 masks available by December. They will be priced at US$40 to US$50, with an extra subscription for the app.
Donut Robotics will not expand overseas until April 2021 at the earliest, but there has been interest in the United Kingdom and United States, where they plan to crowdfund on Kickstarter.