Since COVID struck in late 2019, numerous corporations starting from Gap to Nike to Apple started designing and producing masks and different PPE. Most of them have been easy, low-tech equipment—a lot of which have been produced just for their very own staff to return to work.
By early 2021, we’d all seen so many mask designs that our eyes glazed over. And that’s when the PC gaming company Razer—identified for producing high-end mice, keyboards, online game controllers, and laptops—launched a mask idea that nobody noticed coming.
Project Hazel [Photo: Razer]Called Project Hazel, it was mainly a maximalist, eye-melting gaming PC to your face: a battery powered mask with customizable, rainbow LED lights and a microphone/speaker system to amplify your voice for others to listen to. But its most tantalizing promise was the UX of simpler respiration. It used followers to suck air out and in via its N95-grade filters, in order that you possibly can inhale extra naturally.
Hazel (left) and Zephyr (proper) [Images: Razer]After the idea debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2021, it went viral throughout tech and gaming websites. In flip, Razer green-lit the product for manufacturing. There was only one downside: Hazel was mainly only a drawing moderately than a confirmed, working prototype. Wait, there have been two issues: Razer had built numerous ergonomic mice earlier than, however by no means one thing to wrap round your nostril and mouth—and by no means one thing meant to guard you from microbes. And truly make it three issues: Razer knew that, with the shifting tides of the international pandemic, for this product to be related, it must ship in lower than a yr.
[Photo: Razer]“It was ‘panic stations!’ to [the design team], and mechanical engineers were freaking out a bit,” says Charlie Bolton, head of commercial design at Razer. “Usually a product takes about a year to make. We really had to get everybody involved to get this mask out.”
[Image: courtesy Razer]Ultimately, Razer shipped the renamed Zephyr mask in October of this yr for $100. It has bought greater than 10,000 models so far, and has been constrained solely by the stock it may feasibly produce throughout COVID. (The firm declined to share how many individuals have signed as much as be notified about future Zephyr releases.) But the ultimate product is notably completely different in all kinds of how from the idea, as a result of the strategy of designing and engineering a product introduces much more constraints than sketching up an thought.
[Photo: Razer]“We build wearables: glasses and headphones…but a mask, there’s a lot more [to deal with],” says Bolton. “Every face is different. It had to fit females with smaller faces and males with larger faces. We had all those restrictions…With the original concept, we didn’t have to consider all those restrictions. We just had to make sure it looked good.”
[Photo: Razer]Razer used simulations of face morphologies via growth to make sure the mask’s core geometry may work for most individuals. This finally led to the first large compromise of the design: The authentic seal pressed excessive in opposition to your cheeks, providing a comparatively spacious design for respiration, harking back to quaint fuel masks. The new seal was a lot smaller, wrapping round your nostril and mouth nearly like a jock strap in your face—a bit snugger than the common mask. Razer realized the best choice wasn’t to reinvent the wheel, however to undertake the common silicon seal design that you may see in different N95 merchandise.
The authentic idea additionally urged that the mask would loop over your ears. This deep into the pandemic, we all know that ear loops might be uncomfortable on even a feather-light mask. Meanwhile, Zephyr could be crammed with motors and batteries.
[Image: courtesy Razer]Razer had been experimenting with 3D prints, finalizing these varieties earlier than constructing the tooling to take them into mass manufacturing. The downside with these printed mock ups? “They don’t reflect the weight,” says Bolton. When the crew had full prototypes to check out, they handed them round the workplace for suggestions, and realized that the weight of the mask was simply too nice for anchoring in your ears. (The ultimate mask weighs in at 206 grams on my scale, or almost half a pound. A KN95 weighs all of 6g, or about the weight of a nickel.)
[Image: courtesy Razer]“That was actually one of the easier things to change,” Bolton says, as a result of the crew developed a backup plan: A dual-strap system that wrapped all the method round the again of your head. Ditching the promised voice amplification characteristic helped, too. The tougher change that Razer needed to make was round the mask’s most promising characteristic: Its respiration and filtration system.
As proposed, the mask was fully sealed, save for 2 followers (every match with a small disc filter). One fan was an air consumption. The different was an air outtake.
“When we got the mask [prototype], there was concern about air flow…you felt a little [trapped] in the bubble. That was almost a show stopper,” says Bolton. “The main thing when you’re wearing a mask is to feel comfortable, and not claustrophobic.”
Even after optimizing the fan dimension inside the constraints of the casing, and permitting the consumer to choose certainly one of three fan speeds, the two-port design simply didn’t work. So the crew reworked it. They turned each followers into consumption followers, which elevated the quantity of air coming into the mask (and you may really feel a breeze round your nostril once they’re cranked all the method up, which does assist offset the cosy match of the mask’s seal). They additionally punched a gap in the mask close to your mouth (including one other filter to this spot), creating one other level for exhalation and inhalation, albeit with no fan help.
[Image: courtesy Razer]As for a way you add these little filters—that are about the dimension of a small coin—the crew had initially tried a screw mechanism for eradicating the followers and mouthpiece. When this added an excessive amount of thickness to the product, they opted for magnets as a substitute. You simply pull the sections off the mask, add a filter, and snap them again on. While it may be onerous to really feel such as you’ve lined these filters up completely, Razer factors out that the system has been independently certified with a Bacterial Filtration Efficiency of over 99%, like an N95. Even nonetheless, the Zephyr sits inside this bizarre house of not-quite-regulated private protecting tools. Much like several previous fabric mask you purchase, it’s not a licensed N95 mask, and Razer doesn’t suggest it for medical use. (Razer’s personal nice print insists it’s not even to be thought of PPE.)
[Image: courtesy Razer]The wild west of PPE apart, the Zephyr raises bigger questions on the future norms of masking throughout an ongoing pandemic.
When Project Hazel debuted final winter, the world was determined. With no vaccines out there, society had no method of realizing who could possibly be contaminated and spreading COVID at any given second. For lack of a greater choice, many people Zoomed holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas in the identify of public well being. Hazel was a beacon in the darkness. Yet by the time I obtained a evaluation unit in the mail, just some weeks in the past, the world had modified. We have booster pictures, fast house assessments, and all kinds of different (admittedly imperfect) COVID mitigation methods.
COVID continues to be operating rampant, however as I checked out the shiny field with these overt LEDs, I puzzled who was that previous me who felt so enthusiastic about this vibrant celebration of Hazmat aesthetics? Donning the mask for the first time, I watched because it mechanically cycled via a rainbow gradient of colour on my face—there purely as a trend assertion. I imagined sporting this on the practice or to the grocery retailer, garnering unusual seems to be from each aspect of the political and scientific spectrum. Just how afraid is that this man, they’d marvel, and why is he…glowing?
[Image: courtesy Razer]The followers whir fairly loudly, and talking over them could be a problem at prime pace. But I’ll admit, the breeze feels good. I simply want the seal round my nostril and mouth radiated out farther, as in the authentic design, in order that I may really feel the air on my cheeks. And I ponder how it could really feel on a scorching day—higher than a sweaty mask, or not? Because the physique is tough plastic, and that materials gained’t breathe. As for these LEDs, I hop into the Zephyr app and rapidly deactivate them. There’s one thing to say for this straightforward consumer customization. If I wished, I assume I may have chosen to go away them on and match the colour to my shirt.
[Photo: Razer]Ultimately, I really feel like the Zephyr tapped right into a COVID fantasy that was good for the web with a nation beneath lockdown, however doesn’t fairly translate to the actual world—or no less than it doesn’t appear to proper now, throughout this explicit chapter of the pandemic the place Omicron is frightening but seemingly mutable by boosters, and masks can’t shield us from our ever-growing must socialize in-person with family and friends. But with a extra lethal variant? I may change my tune.
And so I ask Bolton, does he imagine that folks, who have been so enthusiastic about Zephyr at the begin of the yr, nonetheless truly need to put on this? He counters, pretty, that high-end masks, crammed with know-how and fashionably expressive, are a completely new class—and never only for Razer, however the world at giant.
“It’s very much in that early phase of, no one knows where the market will go. I think it’s still relevant,” says Bolton. “Does it make people very self-conscious that they’re wearing this mask on their face? Is it too much? I think people get used to it. I remember first wearing the cloth mask [self-consciously], now I’m totally fine with it. I quite like wearing it in certain situations. I think, potentially, that’s a way smart masks will become more mainstream in a way. But again who knows. This product is like a one-off.”