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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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Photo: Refugee Company
The goal of the Mondmaskerfabriek, an initiative of the Refugee Company in the Netherlands, is to produce 100,000 face masks every day.

As a volunteer in English classes (all online these days), I am aware that most immigrants are determined to contribute to the countries they arrive in. Consider, for example, the Muslim husband and wife in Germany who were largely responsible for the miracle vaccine developed in one year against the odds.

In the Netherlands, the Refugee Company has immigrants employed in making face masks to protect the Dutch against Covid-19.

Michal van der Toorn at the Local Europe has the story.

“Why be dependent on factories on the other side of the world if you can produce face masks locally? That’s exactly what Dutch entrepreneurs Jaap Stelwagen, Fleur Bakker, Johan Blom and Naz Kawan thought in March. The Netherlands, like many other countries at the time, was dealing with a big deficit of surgical face masks.

“Stelwagen, who lived in China, together with his wife who is originally from China, called several people there to ask whether it would be possible to get material. Bakker’s sister, a KLM pilot, managed to get hold of a roll of [fabric] that you need to make face masks, and brought it to the Netherlands on a plane full of other health equipment. Later that month, on one of the few flights that were running at the time, two face mask machines flew 7,000 kilometres to Amsterdam.

“But who would operate them? [One] Company already had a sewing workshop and restaurants in place where people with a refugee background were able to acquire work experience. [The company writes its name Refugee Company to focus on the work, not immigration status.]

“ ‘As a response to the pandemic,’ project spokesperson Peter-Paul de Jong explains, ‘we decided to set up a face mask factory: the Mondmaskerfabriek. … The project not only responded to the deficit of masks in Dutch healthcare,’ de Jong explains, “but also provides people with a refugee background with work experience and knowledge about the labour market in the Netherlands.’

“Firas al Naif, 33, is one of the employees in the factory. ‘I’m doing different tasks,’ he says. ‘I for example have to make sure the masks are properly wrapped and check if the machines work.’ It is all new for Al Naif, as in Syria, he worked as a biology teacher. ‘I wasn’t used to doing technical tasks. The first month was pretty hard, but now it’s going really well. …

” ‘We have a paid four-hour programme next to work, in which we can improve our language and become more familiar with the labour market, and we make for example a CV, application letters, we see how you can find work. …

“ ‘The one thing I like most about this work is solving problems,’ says Al Naif. ‘If there is a problem with the machine from China, I like to look for ways to get it working again.’

“And there were other problems, de Jong explains. After the challenges of getting the right machines and material, the next problem arose: getting certification to create surgical face masks for healthcare professionals. In order to be used in the healthcare sector, the face masks have to be certified by a laboratory to say they meet strict standards. And that took some time. …

“As the building is old, ventilation is a problem and it’s hard to get it up to the antibacterial standards, Bakker writes on the website. The location caused occasional deviations that stood in the way of the factory’s certification.

“The project tried different ways to ensure the masks were up to medical standards, including sterilizing them with gamma radiation and setting up a special sterile production room within the factory with purified air and an antibacterial floor.

“In mid October the certification was acquired and the factory started supplying the Dutch centralized point for healthcare products. …

“ ‘That distinguishes the Mondmaskerfabriek from other projects from the Refugee Company,’ de Jong explains, ‘as we can use the profits to pay employees, instead of only relying on funds and donations.’ …

“ ‘I love how much I learned about technology,’ [al Naif] says. But he would rather be a biology teacher again. ‘When my Dutch is good enough, I want to go back to the classroom.’ ”

More at the Local Europe, here.

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Photo: Kate Marling
“Classical Sculpture Mask,” by Kate Marling (2020). But can she breathe?

I’ve really enjoyed how artists have addressed the pandemic situation, whether designing socially distant ballets and theater or specifically coronavirus-related paintings, constructions, and photos.

Today we learn from Hyperallergic that the lowly face mask has been a particular inspiration. Hakim Bishara reports on a Denver exhibition of artistic face coverings.

“Face masks in all forms and colors have become an essential part of our lives. … A new exhibition at the Vicki Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver comes to remind the nonbelievers and the COVID-fatigued among us that face masks are not only crucial to our health but that they can also be delightful means of self-expression.

MASK … celebrates the centuries-long use of masks as ritual and ornamental objects throughout human history with new works by a group of 41 artists. The dozens of masks are positioned on mannequin heads throughout the gallery space. While some of the face coverings on display are not functional, they are a creative reminder of the times, and the creativity that can emerge from isolation. …

“As the COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen in Denver, the gallery says that it hopes that the exhibition will ‘call attention to the [significance] of masking as an issue of public health and a demonstration of civic responsibility.’ …

“As part of the exhibition, the gallery has joined forces with RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Denver to fabricate free, functional masks that will be distributed to members of the community.

“Ranging in style from the classical to the otherworldly, the masks on view offer inventive notions of what face-coverings can look like. Serge Attukwei Clottey’s science fiction-esque mask appears to be constructed from plastic pipes and found industrial materials. Elizabeth Morisette’s avian mask is a beak made out of zippers. Kate Marling designed a mask that invokes a classical sculpture as if freezing half of her face in stone. Trey Duvall’s ‘COVID19 (Mask for the Art World)’ covers the mouth area with a brick fastened over surgical hand gloves, perhaps hinting at the silencing of certain voices. By contrast, Tobias Fike attached a sizeable megaphone to a mask titled ‘Mouthpiece.’

“A virtual panel discussion with some of the featured artists will be held on November 5.”

A selection of the works, including images of some of the artists modeling their masks, may be viewed at Hyperallergic, here.

Looking for an unusual mask for yourself? Check out the variety at Etsy, here, where you can also get beautiful masks by a family member of mine, good for preventing foggy glasses.

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Photo: Union Leader
A sanitizer customer hands a small bottle to Andre Marcoux, owner of Live Free Distillery in Manchester, NH. All kinds of businesses are stepping up to join the Covid-19 war.

A sense of helplessness pervades our lives now, so whenever anyone is able to actually do something, it’s a great feeling.

On Thursday our family learned that the folks at Klear Vu Home Textiles of Fall River (friends of Suzanne) and an official in Massachusetts state government (friend of John) were able to put together a deal to alleviate one critical shortage. Klear Vu is now pivoting from products like seat cushions to face masks. Congrats to all concerned!

Meanwhile, New England distilleries are stepping up to make hand sanitizer. Alcohol is alcohol, after all. And war is war.

The first distillery I read about was Flag Hill in New Hampshire. Paul Briand at Seacoast reported, “Brian Ferguson at Flag Hill Distillery and Winery is trying to figure out a way through the personal and economic challenges of a society laying low because of the coronavirus.

“Almost daily, he assesses how best to not only keep the business afloat but be a responsible member of a community at-large that is uncertain – even frightened – about what lay ahead. For the latter concern, he’s switched from the production of spirits, such as bourbon, at his distillery to make hand sanitizer full time, primarily for first responders in municipalities around the Granite State.

“As far as the future of the business at Flag Hill is concerned, he and his staff are trying to position the winery to remain on solid footing as a wedding and event venue once the pandemic crisis passes.

” ‘It’s extremely hard to plan,’ said Ferguson. ‘There’s no right answer. No one’s ever written a book on how to do this, all the pros and cons.

‘Every single day we just try to make the best possible decisions we can, answering the questions: It is moral? Is it ethical? Is it smart? Can it be accomplished? If we can answer all those questions, we can make the decision to move in that direction.’ …

“The tools, process and ingredients were pretty much on-site already, according to Ferguson. What it needed to ramp up production was regulatory permission (which distilleries received from the Food and Drug Administration last week). And he needed some logistical help, which he got from Matt Mayberry, an expeditor for Carlisle One Media. …

“ ‘He started connecting the dots between where we were with having supply, but not really knowing where the demand was,’ said Ferguson.

“Creating the hand sanitizer is a process akin to creating bourbon, rum, gin, or vodka: A distillery and lots of neutral grain spirit. Ferguson had that. All he needed was the other ingredients to make the sanitizer – glycerin and hydrogen peroxide. … He can produce 55 gallons of sanitizer a day. …

“While the sanitizer to the municipalities is done at no cost, he makes the 750 milliliter bottles [about 1-1/2 pints] available for consumer sale at $15 each. He’s taking orders by phone [603-659-2949]. More.

At the Union Leader, Shawne K Wickham writes about more distilleries.

“Andre Marcoux opened Live Free Distillery in a Manchester industrial park 18 months ago. The Manchester native’s day job is computer-aided design, but he spends his weekends making and selling craft liquor.

“Until recently, the stainless steel stills wrapped in red oak at Live Free had been turning out products such as his popular dill-pickle vodka. But on Saturday, Marcoux switched production entirely over to hand sanitizer, using a formula put out by the World Health Organization. The alcohol trickling from the still is now being mixed with hydrogen peroxide and glycerol.

‘It’s a giant chemistry set,’ Marcoux said, pointing to the stills he hand-crafted himself. ‘Turning grain into the water of life.’ …

“Every distiller he knows in New Hampshire is making hand sanitizer to meet the need, Marcoux said. ‘We’re all just trying to help out,” he said.” More.

And here’s an article in the Boston Globe about Industrious Spirit Company and Dirty Water Distillery. (I’m loving the titles of these New England distillers!)

“On Monday,” writes Jenna Pelletier, “Industrious Spirit Company tasting room manager Liam Maloney spent hours tossing small bottles of house-made hand sanitizer out of a window at the Providence, R.I., distillery.

“Simultaneously in Plymouth, Dirty Water Distilling was fielding an ‘overwhelming’ number of sanitizer requests from first responders. And in Everett, the owners of Short Path Distillery were waiting for more supplies to arrive so they could whip up another batch. …

“ ‘We thought, nobody’s able to get it, so let’s start offering it,’ said Brenton MacKechnie, head distiller at Dirty Water Distilling. …

“According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, more than 300 distilleries in the country, including at least six in Massachusetts, six in New Hampshire, two in Rhode Island, four in Connecticut, and seven in Vermont are now producing hand sanitizer — something many of them said they never expected to be doing.” Hooray for flexibility!

In a different kind of initiative from Scotland, an opera company, noted here, is lending set-hauling trucks to Tesco to smooth out the supermarket’s supply chain deliveries.

Got other examples of repurposing for the war effort? Please put it in Comments.

Brian Ferguson, proprietor of Flag Hill in New Hampshire. The distiller and wine maker is helping the “plague effort” by focusing on hand sanitizer as long as necessary. Make a list of companies behaving ethically in the crisis and try to give them your business when this is over, OK?8839-brian-1080

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