The image of Chinese city-dwellers clad in surgical-style face masks has become a potent symbol of that country’s modernity.
For Westerners it can be a confusing, even troubling spectacle; one that evokes the environmental traumas associated with China’s industrial advance, as well dystopian fears of global disease outbreaks, like the 2003 Sars crisis. For residents of megacities like Shanghai and Beijing, however, face masks are a more prosaic proposition — an everyday solution to all manner of urban irritations, from summer rays to winter viruses; it can even be a fashion statement.
Then there is the ever-present pollution, record levels of which have seen sales of masks boom in recent months. Up to 100,000 a day were being purchased in Beijing alone during a particularly smog-filled January.
By combining this pressing issue with an ongoing focus on wearable technology, the Shanghai branch of international design firm Frog — famous for their work with computing giant Apple — has reimagined the basic mask as an intelligent, Bluetooth-enabled device which can instantly collect and share air quality data.
No longer purely a health product, Frog’s version has a more idealistic purpose: a tool in a connected, data-driven world, in which the power of information is placed directly in the hands of individuals.
Executive Creative Director Rainer Wessler spoke to BBC Future about the concept — called AirWaves — from Frog’s offices in Shanghai.
Why has Frog redesigned the mask?
The theme of wearable computing is one that excites many of us at frog. Another reason is, of course, the attention that air quality in China is seeing lately. The third reason is a cultural one. I think the habit of wearing protective masks is one that has always been intriguing, especially for people from the West arriving in China. What looks like a single product category is actually pretty nuanced. People are wearing masks for many reasons, not just filtering air. Some masks are to protect you from the cold, others from sunshine. Viruses that could be in the air are an important concern, as well as etiquette — to protect other people from the cold I believe I carry.
What were the flaws with current masks?
I would say there is nothing really wrong with the design. Face masks have gone through years of evolution and refinement. I think what has changed is more the environment. The level of air pollution is reaching new highs. The affordability of mobile technology has made wearable products a lot more realistic. And there is also a change with regards to consumer expectations, and the demand for trustworthy and accurate pollution data that many will say is not available in China today.
What other products designs – not necessarily related – influenced your design?
One reference point is all these new wearable and connected products, like Nike Plus, Fitbit, Glocap and Google Glass. I think we've taken some inspiration from the principle that your mobile phone capability and connectivity can be enhanced through wearables — but on a cultural level what intrigued us is that all these products reflect a new level of acceptance between people and technology. Because you're actually wearing them much closer to your body, and to a large degree data collection or interaction happens without you paying attention to it. We found it a significant new level of trust and intimacy.
What was the most challenging part designing the mask?
For now, this concept hasn't been produced. We're not claiming it is completely working yet. The biggest challenge is a mechanical challenge, to fit all the components — like a particle filter, a Bluetooth modem, a battery, and a power management unit — into the mask without compromising its comfort. Another challenge is to make all these bits talk to each other. Then there is also the cultural and aesthetic challenge. Where on the continuum between the fashionable and the utilitarian do you want to land with the design? Is it something you want to make loud and different, or is it something that you want to make a little more "as expected"? Is it something really big and sturdy, or is it something lightweight and flimsy — a little bit more low commitment? The next challenge would really be to look at this mask and the associated connected applications as a service. You want to make sure that what you're asking the customer to do is outweighed by the benefits that you're offering for them. The last challenge, possibly the most sensitive one, is that of the social and political vector. The air quality data in China is something that is very much speaking to the country's socio-economic development. It's a loaded topic. There are many challenges, to be honest, but they are interesting ones.
How easy will a smart, Bluetooth-connected mask be to produce?
I think all the technology is available today. The limiting factor is mainly our time. This is one of the passion projects that two of our designers — Azure Yang and Mingmin Wang — are moving along next to our commercial projects. And that has certain implications in terms of the speed at which we're going. But I also look at it in a really positive way. It allows us to let the people who are interested — society, so to speak — partake in how the idea comes about. It allows them to renegotiate what is desirable, and what China as a society is ready to stomach.
What will the mask be made of?
There are different design explorations. Many masks today are made of a certain fabric or textiles, but as air pollution gets worse, you see more hard-shell masks, which make a statement, and that is where we are currently landing. I think in the end our mask is going to be a mix of a plastic shell with the parts that will connect with your skin made of a silicon material. Next to that are the basic components such as the small battery and the particle filter. And then the actual filter tissue, which we don't we want to change, because it is more or less an industry standard. Last but not least, it is all about the connectivity, and the software that puts it all together.
Will you be taking the design on from here?
In order to nail this we will need to continue to prototype both the software and the mask. We have to actually create a collection of physical prototypes and appearance models to make sure it feels comfortable, and has the right size. Being in China, building a physical prototype is one thing you can do easily and quickly.
What has designing the smart mask taught you?
I think one insight that really has become a bit of mantra is the relevance of openness and transparency in tomorrow’s urban environments. For a city to be liveable and humane, I think we need to move away from looking at it as this polished, sterile environment. I think the cities that will be appealing and liveable for citizens are the ones that are actually enabling and encouraging participation and innovation. And I don't really believe in this tightly integrated, very efficient environment that is going to be managed out of single control room. I think it is an organic network of data collection points — that everybody can tap into — that really keeps the city alive and liveable. This mask is a very small concept, admittedly, but one that perfectly embodies this insight for us. It was good exercise to go through in order to evolve our thinking on what innovation in the future city means and has to look like.