When the COVID-19 pandemic made face masks an everyday essential, Japanese startup Donut Robotics spotted a chance. They created a sensible mask — a high-tech upgrade to plain face coverings, designed to make communication & social distancing easier.
The cutouts on the front are vital for breathability, therefore the smart mask doesn’t offer protection against the coronavirus. Instead, it’s designed to be worn over a typical mask , explains Donut Robotics CEO Taisuke Ono. made from white plastic & silicone, it’s an embedded microphone that connects to the wearer’s smartphone via Bluetooth. The system can translate between Japanese & Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, English, Spanish & French.
Donut Robotics first developed translation software for a robot called Cinnamon — but when the pandemic hit, the robot project was placed on hold. That’s when the team’s engineers came up with the thought to use their software in mask.
According to a spokesperson for Haneda Robotics Lab, robots fill a requirement as Japan’s declining workforce will make it harder to recruit human staff.
Donut Robotics’ Cinnamon robot — designed to provide tourists with useful information and help them to navigate the airport — was one among four translation robot prototypes selected by the project in 2016. Haneda Robotics Lab says Cinnamon beat the competition due to its appealing aesthetics and user-friendly design, and since the translation software performed well in noisy environments.
This success prompted the corporate to relocate to Tokyo and combat 3 new team members. Ono says the Donut Robotics software uses machine learning developed with the assistance of translation experts & focuses on the japanese language. He claims that “the technology is best than Google API, or other popular technologies” for Japanese language users, because most competitor apps specialise in translating to and from English.
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 therefore the airport project ground to a halt. “We were running in need of money and wondering the way to keep the corporate going,” says Ono.
The team sought an answer and came up with the thought to adapt its software for a product that might sell well during pandemic.
A Quickly Growing Market
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a boom in mask sales, with mask-wearing publicly now mandated in many countries round the world.
Seeing a chance to monetize their translation technology, Donut Robotics launched a fundraiser on Japanese crowdfunding platform Fundinno in June. They raised 28 million yen ($265,000) in 37 min, says Ono. “It was very surprising,” he says, “because it might usually take 3 or 4 months to get that kind of cash .”
A second round of crowdfunding on Fundinno in July raised an extra 56.6 million yen ($539,000), which Ono plans to use to develop translation software for the international market. To proportion production, Donut Robotics have partnered with a corporation in Tokyo, which they declined to call .
Ono says the 1st wave of distribution is expected to take place in Japan, with 5,000 to 10,000 masks available by December. they’re going to be priced at $40 to $50, he says, with an additional subscription for the app. Donut Robotics won’t expand overseas until April 2021 at the earliest, but there has been interest within the UK & US, where they decide to crowdfund on Kickstarter, says Ono.
The Mask Bluetooth Chip can hook up with smartphones up to 32 feet (10 m) away, says Ono. He hopes the mask will make new social distancing norms in locations including hospitals and offices easier, by enabling good communication. “We still have many situations where we’ve to meet in person,” he says. “In this new normal … the mask & app are very helpful.”