As the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made face masks and coverings become the norm in many regions of the world, tech companies are now seeking ways to keep ourselves better connected to our devices.
Made of white plastic, the “c-mask” fits over standard face masks and is able to connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone or a tablet application that can translate Japanese into eight other languages, transcribe speech into text messages, make phone calls and amplify the voice of the user.
One particular complaint that is ubiquitous among those talking to mask-wearers is that it can be, at times, difficult to hear them speak. So, this advancement could indeed help during work meetings and in classroom settings.
“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,” Taisuke Ono, the CEO of Donut Robotics, told Reuters.
Ono said Donut Robotics’ first 5,000 c-masks will be shipped to purchasers in Japan starting in September. The company is seeking to sell its product in China, the United States and Europe as well, which have shown strong interest, the CEO noted.
Donut Robotics is currently retailing the mask for about $40, but additional revenue could come from subscriber services provided via an app that the users will download.
Engineers at Donut Robotics came up with the innovative mask idea when they were searching for a particular product that could help ease the devastating financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic. When the coronavirus began spreading across the country quickly, the company had just secured a contract to supply robot guides and translators to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport—products that are now confronting an uncertain future amid the economic viability of global air travel.
Ono said the company was able to build a prototype mask in about a month by adapting translation software developed for its other robotics projects. The bones of the next-gen masks were created four years ago by an engineer to interpret speech by mapping face muscles.
Ono was able to raise 28 million yen ($260,000) for development by selling Donut Robotics shares via the Japanese crowdfunding site Fundinno.
“We raised our initial target of 7 million yen within three minutes and stopped after 37 minutes when we had reached 28 million yen,” he said.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.
Image: Donut Robotics.