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Photo: CNN
In Japan, wearing a mask was common even before the pandemic.

I’m told that in Sweden, it’s been hard to get people to start wearing masks now that the authorities have changed their approach to the pandemic. In Japan, where mask wearing on subways and elsewhere is normal to protect health, dialing up usage has not been a problem.

That has created an opportunity for a robotics company with an idea about putting a multipurpose mask over your Covid-19 mask.

As Rebecca Cairns reported at CNN Business last November, “When the Covid-19 pandemic made face masks an everyday essential, Japanese startup Donut Robotics spotted an opportunity. They created a smart mask — a high-tech upgrade to standard face coverings, designed to make communication and social distancing easier.

“In conjunction with an app, the C-Face Smart mask can transcribe dictation, amplify the wearer’s voice, and translate speech into eight different languages.

“The cutouts on the front are vital for breathability, so the smart mask doesn’t offer protection against the coronavirus. Instead, it is designed to be worn over a standard face mask, explains Donut Robotics CEO Taisuke Ono. Made of white plastic and silicone, it has an embedded microphone that connects to the wearer’s smartphone via Bluetooth. The system can translate between Japanese and Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, English, Spanish and French.

Donut Robotics first developed the translation software for a robot called Cinnamon — but when the pandemic hit, the robot project was put on hold. That’s when the team’s engineers came up with the idea to use their software in a face mask.

“Donut Robotics started life in a garage in Kitakyushu City, in Fukuoka prefecture, in 2014. … With venture capital investment, [Ono and cofounder engineer Takafumi Okabe] applied to Haneda Robotics Lab — an initiative that sought robots to provide services for visitors at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. …

“Donut Robotics’ Cinnamon robot — designed to provide tourists with useful information and help them to navigate the airport — was one of four translation robot prototypes selected by the project in 2016. Haneda Robotics Lab says Cinnamon beat the competition because of its appealing aesthetics and user-friendly design, and because the translation software performed well in noisy environments. …

“The team started testing a prototype at Haneda Airport in 2017 and continued developing the technology. But earlier this year, Covid-19 hit Asia and the airport project ground to a halt. ‘We were running short of money and wondering how to keep the company going,’ says Ono. The team sought a solution and came up with the idea to adapt its software for a product that would sell well in a pandemic. …

“Donut Robotics launched a fundraiser on Japanese crowdfunding platform Fundinno in June. They raised 28 million yen ($265,000) in 37 minutes, says Ono. ‘It was very surprising,’ he says. …

“A second round of crowdfunding on Fundinno in July raised a further 56.6 million yen ($539,000), which Ono plans to use to develop translation software for the international market. … Ono says the first wave of distribution is expected to take place in Japan, with 5,000 to 10,000 masks available by December [2020]. They will be priced at $40 to $50, he says, with an extra subscription for the app. Donut Robotics will not expand overseas until April 2021 at the earliest. …

“The mask’s Bluetooth chip can connect to smartphones up to 32 feet (10 meters) away, says Ono. He hopes the mask will make new social distancing norms in locations including hospitals and offices easier, by enabling good communication.”

Photo: Donut Robotics

More at CNN, here.

As I write this, the English language class where I volunteer is about to start. At the risk of throwing a wet blanket over this robotics story, I can’t help mentioning that translation devices really slow language acquisition.

But I do think the Donut software’s ability to clarify your words and make social distancing work better is great. I’m constantly misunderstanding muffled words spoken through a mask — which gave a granddaughter a really good laugh the other day.

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