As COVID-19 continues to spread in the U.S., masks have become a hot commodity. We’ve seen masks that are cheap. Masks that are reusable and easy to sterilize. And even masks that let you drink. But slowly, it seems that big consumer technology companies are realizing the potential market at play and starting to introduce a new wave of innovative masks with the same enticing features of any must-have gadget.
Case in point: LG has teased a new mask that solves one of the biggest problems in any mask, your ability to breathe freely. Called the PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier, it’s literally a tiny, battery-powered HEPA filter that fits on your face.
Because your stock N95 mask from 3M is just a molded piece of polymer, it relies on the power of your lungs to suck air in and out through its filter like you’re a vacuum cleaner. That means it’s tiring to wear one for long, as your lungs work harder to breathe. And it’s also hot. Even cotton masks, which offer lower levels of protection, can still be stuffy to wear.
The PuriCare, on the other hand, promises “effortless” breathing, while still protecting you from airborne virus particles. How does the mask work? Onboard sensors track the cadence and volume of your breath. These sensors control two fans, which speed up to suck air in through its small HEPA filters as you inhale, and slow down to get out of the way as you exhale. With its rechargeable built-in battery, the mask can operate for up to eight hours of low-level breathing assistance or two hours of higher-level breathing assistance. It’s hard to know if the mask will still feel hot and just how much breathing assistance the low-level fan speed offers will be key to comfort. In any case, the whole idea reminds me a lot of an assistive pedaling e-bike, but for your face.
For when you’re done wearing the mask, LG designed a UV-sterilizing carrying case, which automatically cleans the mask between uses. As the filters will eventually need to be replaced, a connected smartphone app will let you know when it’s time—and LG will be ready to sell you new ones.
Can HEPA filters work against COVID-19? The short answer is yes, and in terms of sheer filtering capacity, they are believed to be even better than an N95. In fact, HEPA filters are used in some hospital-grade PPE, known as PAPRs (Powered Air Purifying Respirators). Just like this mask from LG, PAPRs use motors to help drive air through a HEPA filter to the wearer. However, PAPRs generally require you to wear a big filter box on your belt, connected to a large tube that feeds into a helmet on your head. LG has basically taken the whole idea of a PAPR and shrunk it into a face mask.
Of course, while the idea looks perfect on paper, a lot will come down to the exact ergonomic details of the design. How snugly does the mask fit most faces—does it really have the airtight seal of an N95? How much do those fans help—enough that breathing is truly effortless? And furthermore—how much does this thing weigh? Especially as the straps loop around your ears—rather than distributing weight around the back for your head—it would be a shame if LG made breathing effortless only to put another part of your body in extreme discomfort.
We’re likely to hear more details, including the device’s price and global availability, at the upcoming IFA trade show in early September. After that, LG could wait to share even more details in January—especially regarding U.S. availability—at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
Indeed, every year, CES seems to have at least one notable trend that every company is chasing. One year it was digital photo frames. Another year it was 4K televisions. Another year it was that every random toaster had Amazon Alexa integration. With COVID-19 showing no signs of slowing down in the U.S. before winter, don’t be surprised if LG is merely one of the first to be showing off what it can build in response to a market that cares about safer, more comfortable COVID-19 masks as much as any new television, refrigerator, or smart speaker. Perhaps that sounds like a boring year ahead of us. But frankly, it was about time some of these companies started focusing on building stuff that actually mattered anyway.