Musician and investor will.i.am has partnered with Honeywell, the technology giant and provider of personal protective equipment (PPE), to launch a face mask with built-in fans, Bluetooth connectivity, and audio. Called the Xupermask, it goes on sale April 8 for $299, making it a long-term investment compared to the inexpensive disposable or cloth masks on the market.
The timing is notable. While the pandemic is far from over, many western countries are finally beginning to hope that life may return to some semblance of normalcy in a matter of months. By April 19, US president Joe Biden says all American adults will be eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine. In Canada and the European Union, vaccine rollouts have been slow, but efforts are underway to speed them ahead.
Still, it appears will.i.am, Honeywell, and others think western consumers could keep masking up for a long time to come.
Building a better mask for the future
“We think there will continue to be a need for masks and respiratory products even after the pandemic,” said Will Lange, Honeywell’s chief commercial officer for PPE, in an email. “We expect many people will wear masks on a regular basis for both health and—with Xupermask—fashion purposes.”
The Xupermask bills itself as an “innovative smart mask for the mid- and post-pandemic world.” It comes with a 30-day supply of disposable high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters. It’s not designed for use in medical settings. Rather it’s meant to be a more comfortable, fashionable, and functional mask for everyday users.
It’s not the only effort to build a better mask. At the end of March, the US government launched a contest offering $500,000 for the best ideas on how to redesign face masks, noting that people may not wear them because of issues such as skin rashes, discomfort, and their glasses fogging up. The prompt didn’t specify the masks as protection against Covid-19, instead saying public health agencies around the world are encouraging mask use in public areas to reduce the spread of respiratory diseases.
Will western consumers wear masks after the pandemic?
At the very least, US infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci and other health officials have cautioned that Americans will likely have to keep wearing masks for several more months and possibly into 2022. The same is likely to be the case in many European countries.
Some are also considering whether a portion of consumers will continue wearing masks in high-risk areas, such as crowded public transportation, even after Covid-19 subsides.
“The other thing we don’t know at the end of the day is will consumers, us as individuals, will our behaviors change as we’re out and about in everyday life,” Bruce Jermeland, vice president of investor relations at 3M, a large maker of PPE, said on an earnings call in March. “In many Asian cultures, people wear respiratory protection when they’re out in their everyday life. Will that change in other areas of the world? It’s certainly possible that the entire end market actually has expanded.”
On the west coast of the US, the number of wildfires has given people another reason to wear masks as well.
Though in the US, where resistance to masks has remained high even during the pandemic, everyday mask-wearing may not easily become widespread. For those who do plan to keep masking up—especially if they want more technology in their face wear—will.i.am and Honeywell have them covered.
This story has been updated with comment from Honeywell’s chief commercial officer for PPE, Will Lange.