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Is a Smart Mask Really Worth the Price?

The answer really depends on how committed you are to a masked future

Based on our current trajectory of vaccine distribution, all signs seem to indicate that masks will be a part of our lives here in America for at least the rest of the year — most likely longer. Still, there’s hope for a maskless future eventually. The length of time that we will continue to walk around grocery stores shielded from one another’s faces depends almost entirely on two things: First, whether a vaccinated person can still transmit the virus, and second, how quickly entire communities in this country can get vaccinated. 

So far, the latter is best characterized as “not terribly quickly.” And if the vaccine proves to be less effective against these newer strains of the virus, masks or the like may be around for longer than any of us anticipated. The COVID dirt, at least for the time being, is here to stay. 

For most folks, this reality is bad news. But for the gadget bros, innovating everything from eyeglasses to blankets to hats, it’s merely another opportunity to shove a few buttons onto a mask and call it “smart.”

In August, LG Electronics announced the introduction of their PuriCare™ Wearable Air Purifier. Employing their latest advancements in air purification and high-performance replaceable filters, LG is making sure you never have to smell another person’s fart ever again. Ergonomically designed based on extensive facial shape analysis, per their press release, this futuristic Bane mask fits “snugly on the user’s face to minimize air leakage around the nose and chin.”

But LG’s is merely the most absurd rendition of the “smart mask.” In September, Rubin Pillay, a medical futurist and professor of health-care innovation and entrepreneurship in the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama, began the development of his own entirely transparent smart mask. The basic version, according to the university’s press release, is just a clear mask — no smart stuff. But a modified version of Pillay’s mask comes with sensors that monitor temperature and pulse for early detection of viral infections such as COVID-19. 

To be clear, this “early detection” technology isn’t new, per se — as we reported last year, wearable tech has been pushing the use of pulse detection technology as one way to detect a COVID infection. But as we also noted, the jury is still very much out on its efficacy. 

Most recently, Airpop, which brands itself as the “world’s first smart air wearable,” has developed a smart mask with a “halo sensor” that captures “breathing-related data and correlates that information with real-time data about air quality and location,” reports Hypebeast.com

And the list of smart masks goes on and on. This isn’t surprising: According to MarketWatch, the global disposable face mask market size is projected to reach a little over $30 billion by 2026, from $15.8 billion in 2020. But should you consider dishing out the nearly $200 price that comes with purchasing one of these techy face condoms?

Well, it wouldn’t hurt, exactly. As mentioned, these masks do offer a more effective filtration system, particularly the LG brand smart mask with HEPA filters. More importantly, however, according to a massive report by researchers in Singapore, these more expensive, reusable masks also offer a more environmentally friendly approach: According to one report, 53 million masks a day were ending up in landfills in the U.K. alone.

Still, there’s reason to be wary of these smart masks as well. At a couple hundred bucks, they’re hardly affordable, and their very existence further emphasizes the way in which this pandemic has and will continue to unequally affect people from different socioeconomic backgrounds — chances are, the person who can afford to buy a $200 smart mask is more likely to be a person at much lower risk of dying of COVID than a person who can’t afford one. 

Ultimately, these masks are little more than superfluous enhancements to an already highly effective measure for curbing the spread of this virus. Not to mention, they look dumb as shit.

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