It was way back in 2015 that AirPop co-founder Chris Hosmer first began to think about the air that he breathed.
“My daughter was having breathing problems and I became very curious about the air quality in China. It’s obviously bad. You can see it and you can taste it,” Hosmer tells Health Tech World.
“Once I realised that it was the air causing her problems, I became very angry, frankly.”
There was no consumer mask option out there – certainly not a smart mask that could give the wearer feedback as it filtered the air. They were all single-use, flimsy and designed to be mass produced for industry and medical use at the lowest possible cost.
With a degree in Industrial and Interaction Design from Syracuse University and a background applied innovation, Hosmer set out on the path to creating two consumer face masks: One for general consumer use and the other, a smart mask for tech-savvy athletes.
Hosmer says: “We spent the first 18 months just re-imagining what a mask is and how it works. And that was probably one of the most fun times of my life because I happen to be of a school of thought that the best innovation is usually invisible to people.”
One such innovation that’s built into all AirPop masks is the medical-grade silicone seal. It’s ultrasonically welded into a nonwoven filter, creating a comfortable fit and solid barrier to block out pathogens and irritants.
AirPop also designed a contoured face form material, spending a year scanning more than 4,000 faces so that the end product would actually fit their target demographic.
“We’d learned that most masks are designed in a very discriminatory way. They are not designed to include East Asian face forms which excludes billions of people from the benefit and pleasure of wearing a mask,” Hosmer says.
“The irony is that East Asia is a mask-wearing culture. So there’s this obvious paradox.”
Masks were adopted into East Asian culture long before the current pandemic struck. The 1918 influenza pandemic, the 2002 SARS outbreak and China’s notorious air pollution problem have all contributed to what was often a misunderstood practice until Covid happened.
The pandemic brought AirPop masks to widespread international attention. The Active+ Halo Smart Mask was released in the UK in February this year.
The removable Halo sensor attaches over the outer shell of the mask and connects to the user’s smartphone via Bluetooth.
When the user puts a new filter in, they scan a QR code to authenticate it, setting the 40 hour countdown. The dashboard works much like a fuel gauge, showing the health and life of the filter in real time.
Users can also monitor their breathing and see a reading of any pollutants in the local area.
“Unfortunately, because of wildfires here in California, a lot of people are very aware of the air quality index range,” Hosmer says.
“Our app allows you to see not only the local air quality index, but it also gives you that delta between what’s outside and what’s actually getting breathed in.
“One of the major pain points of masks is that they don’t give you any feedback. People don’t know if they’re wearing it correctly, they don’t know if it’s doing anything. And that lack of feedback is often cited as why people don’t mask.
“But because we can tell your breathing and we know your ambient air quality and how much we’re filtering, we can tell you what it’s doing and that it’s working.”
The Active+ Halo is not the only smart mask on the market. Musician will.i.am launched his Cyberpunky ‘Xupermask’ in April 2020, complete with LED lights, noise-cancelling headphones and dual, three-speed fans.
Hosmer, however, is not concerned about the new wave of smart masks.
“[The Xupermask] looked really cool and I really liked it. But it also signalled this truth that I don’t think is talked about enough: If you understand human behaviour, you’ll realise that people won’t tolerate an appliance on their face, no matter how cool it looks, no matter what it does. It’s actually a challenge to get people to put anything on their face,” he says.
“You can put speakers on and make it glow in the dark. That’s all totally doable and cool and fun, but no one’s going wear it for longer than it takes for them to take a picture and post it.
“We’ve got five years of consumer research behind us. We know what people will wear and won’t wear.”
While the Active+ is very much the headliner, it’s AirPop’s ‘bread and butter’ products like the Pocket which Hosmer believes have most societal value in 2021. The mask was declared the face covering ‘Best Buy’ by consumer guide Which? in May this year.
Ultimately, Hosmer wants AirPop to become the ‘Kleenex of masks’ – the best basic version of a thing that you will need in the future.
You won’t need it every day, but you’re going to want to have one in you desk drawer, in your backpack and in your car.
“The smart mask is a little bit different because it is a more of a premium, narrow offering,” Hosmer says.
“Right now, it’s targeted for people who are athletes or just very in touch about quantifying themselves, understanding their health and maximising their inputs.
“In the future, I think the smart mask becomes a much more broad-based product. It becomes a platform for consumer benefit. We can also learn a lot about how population-level health is affected by air quality and its pathogens, dust storms, wildfires, man-made pollution and so on.
“I’m fascinated by the fact that in 2020, the facemask almost became the perfect symbol with which to understand the world at that moment.
“It was economically, environmentally, socially, politically, culturally, a single object. When was the last time a single object carried that much weight?”