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Cloth masks & smartphone-controlled respirators are about to be the new face of your face in public

Face masks are about to become the new normal for functioning outside our homes. Thanks to the novel coronavirus, it’s unavoidable and inevitable at this point.

The CDC is recommending that we as a society adapt to wearing some version of a cloth face mask during any public excursion. Either virus droplets from sick or asymptomatic carriers are captured within the mask, or a low viral load of droplets make it through the mask. In either direction, the idea is that the mask is a physical barrier that lessens the odds of transmission between two people.

So wearing face masks in public is about to become as ubiquitous as skinny jeans. It’s an unavoidable social outcome that will affect all Americans. The Cybergoths were way ahead of us on this one, as masks are set to join shirts and shoes as mandatory accessories for going out in public for the rest of us.

JetBlue is the first airline to mandate face masks for all passengers. States are already considering enforcing wearing masks in public. Germany already instituted fines for not wearing masks in public. Walmart requires all employees to wear a mask, and so on. The gist is that we’ll all be wearing masks in public soon, for the health of the greater community at large.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to wear some basic mask that you made out of a sock. Just like the variability in everything else we wear, masks of the [near] future will cover a wide spectrum of functionality, fashion choices and technology. The CDC has a how-to guide for making a basic mask, but we are much, much more fashionable and tech-forward than that.

Sure, you could go full survival mode with your face mask, but keep your gas mask in your go bag. There are more socially acceptable and welcome options.

The fashion industry has made a quick pivot to selling fashionable face masks, while an easy search on Etsy reveals that every crafter with a sewing machine is making and selling face masks of varying quality. It’ll only be a matter of time before Nike, Adidas and every athletic brand will be selling face masks. It’s not a stretch to hypothesize that Walmart brand 10-packs of disposable face masks will be available by the end of summer.

A new “tactical” respirator model

If the homemade cloth option isn’t for you and you are looking for something a bit more tactical, there are masks that straddle the line between full-on gas mask and high-quality respirator. The point is to not walk into the grocery store looking like you are prepared for a mustard gas attack, but rather there to buy some frozen pizzas and be on your way.

The next generation of masks

Part of how we interact with other humans is physical. We not only listen to the words coming out of someone’s mouth, we read their body language. How their eyes move, how their body moves and how their mouth moves. We do this subconsciously. Removing the mouth from the equation removes a lot of emotion from human interaction. And while some of us might find that more preferable in a public interaction, many people will find themselves at a loss when trying to fully understand the person they are talking to.

It’s a good thing that technology is already working on the true mask of the future.

The AO Atmos is the first glimpse at the true technological future of face masks. It’s not a face covering, it’s a face shield packed with tech that leads to AO claiming it is 5-25x better than a N95 medical-grade mask in protection from particle matter. It’s clear and while it looks like the Google Glass of the mouth, it’s more like the Dyson of the mouth.

The Atmos uses fans at the back of the mask to create a pressure clean environment, requiring no seal around the mouth and nose. It creates a one-way outflow of air from the mouth that prevents any air from coming in. The filters are located within the fans, so you only get clean air in your face holes and the public can clearly see your weird grin as you walk around with what appear to be racquetball glasses on your mouth.

As much as fashion brands and crafters are jumping on the mask trend, technology companies will be as well. There will be masks similar to the Atmos in the sense that they will use technological solutions rather than fashionable basics to create the most effective masks. This isn’t to say we should expect an Apple iMask by the holidays, but it’s not a wholly terrible assumption. Independent entrepreneurs will also be lining up to patent the next, best solution in viral load protection. Innovation in public-facing face masks is just getting started.

How the populace will adapt to face mask wearing in public is debatable. Between the stigma of Asian countries (racism) and the rightfully earned fear in the black community of wearing masks in public, adaptation will likely not be universal, even if required. At the same time, fashion and technology changes could very well propel masks into the collective mindset of the public. There will always be someone who refuses, but there is always someone wearing socks with sandals so what can you do?


    • SeaBee

      In the coming unpleasantness–class warfare, collective rage, or Hobbesian party time; however you frame it–one might not want to strap a device to the face that screams, “Elite, oblivious and begging for a lesson in reality”. Just, you know, a thought.

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    • Mary M

      Considering how it’s still possible that the eyes may be a mode of entry for the virus, perhaps face shields are more likely to become the new norm. I believe they can block over 90% of droplets (even without a mask), and they serve the dual purpose of keeping your hands off your face. Plus they’re cheap.

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      • John RameyStaff Mary M

        IMO it’ll depend on what people / our culture take more seriously: if people are thinking more about daily pollution or being sick themselves and not wanting to spread it to others, you’ll see more half-face mask usage. If people are thinking more about “I don’t want to get sick”, then they’re more likely to wear a full-face covering.

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    • Lil K

      The tactical respirator above would be banned here in the Bay Area where many cities currently have an order requiring face coverings in public. “Note that any mask that incorporates a one-way valve (typically a raised plastic cylinder about the size of a quarter on the front or side of the mask) that is designed to facilitate easy exhaling is not a Face Covering under this Order and is not to be used to comply with this Order’s requirements. Valves of that type permit droplet release from the mask, putting others nearby at risk”. The AO Atmos is pretty interesting, tho! Could totally see some tech bro’s rocking that.

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      • Hardened Lil K

        Does that mean wearing an N95 is illegal in the Bay Area?

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      • Lil K Hardened

        It depends on the N95. There are different styles. If it has a one way valve it is not in compliance.

        From SF Chronicle:

        N95 respirators, with an exhalation valve (or one-way vent): These are commonly used in Northern California during fire season but are not as effective as standard masks. They are designed to ease exhalation and decrease humidity, heat and moisture inside. But these do not block transmission of COVID-19. While they protect the wearer, they do not protect others from a potentially infected cough or sneeze due to their ability to release large respiratory droplets into the air. The city of San Francisco said these masks do not comply with the city mandate for face coverings.

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    • Mary M

      I’m not sure why my comment disappeared, but I’m going to try again, since I think the information is relevant. Face shields, as opposed to face masks may be more protective, since they cover the eyes as well as the noise and mouth. They also seem to offer a considerable degree of protection, according to this article.

      There are inexpensive face-shields-cum-hats for sale on a major online commerce site, which I’m not going to link to, since I suspect that may be the reason my first post got trashed.

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