Razer’s new Zephyr ‘smart mask’ is a glowing vision of a cyberpunk future

The company’s ‘Project Hazel’ concept is finally announced, but whether it will be seen much in the UK depends on illness, climate change, and a chunky price tag

Adam Smith
Thursday 21 October 2021 19:00
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Razer, the computer company best known for its RGB lighting, announced a smart mask at the beginning of the year called ‘Project Hazel’. Today this concept came to fruition with a new name: the Zephyr.

The Razer Zephyr features two N95 filters, one on each side, and a passive filter on the bottom that are changed my removing the magnetically-attached plastic covers. It has a transparent outer shell, and internal lighting to make it easier to see people’s lips. There are two-speed fans, controlled by a companion app or the power button on the right-hand chamber and, of course, some customizable external lights.

For the past two years, during the pandemic, most people have worn the smaller cloth masks, and the move to a larger N95 mask – especially a larger, premium one like this – does feel akin to walking around as Mad Max’s Immortan Joe. But it’s an upgrade that experts say could be necessary for everyone to take on the new variants of the coronavirus and perhaps protect against air pollution.

Razer’s reasoning for building what it calls the “world’s smartest mask” is curt and corporate: “Many suffered due to the shortage of equipment to combat this pandemic”, the company says. “We saw and acted on this opportunity to bring innovation into a space that has by and large been void of technology”.

In the real world, wearing the mask feels like a statement, moreso than wearing a cloth one or a less conspicuous filter mask. It’s a little like how I imagine the first proponents of Google Glass must have felt: “I know something about the future that you don’t”. It’s hard to say whether a smart mask is more dystopian, more cyberpunk, or less, compared to Glass.

The Zephyr feels like Razer’s attempt to get in on the ground floor, using its technological capabilities to make masks both a fashion icon (a trend that had already begun due to mass pollution) and a visible ad for the company with its iconic light effects. If tomorrow holds smart glasses and smart clothes, why not smart masks too?

I also never had that same intensity of conviction about smart masks that Glass wearers must have done, partly because of professional scepticism but also because it is big and bulky. Most people will want to stash the mask, when they’re not wearing it, in a bag or rucksack rather than wear it uncomfortably around their neck. I had to make a certain amount of preparation to wear a mask which, by definition, makes it feel unnatural.

Razer claims the mask filters out 95 per cent of particles, although there does not appear to be clear evidence of this on the company’s website currently. In contrast, a tightly woven cloth mask with at least two layers can achieve somewhere around 40 to 80 per cent filtration efficiency, Dr Miranda Loh, an exposure scientist and head of environmental and public health at the Institute of Occupational Medicine told The Independent, but emphasised that “no matter how effective at filtration the material a mask is made out of, if the fit is poor, the mask will not achieve a high level of protection.”

Having worn the Zephyr for a week while walking and on public transport, it is generally comfortable and its adjustable strap fits around the head well. The silicone cup has a tight, but not pressurizing, seal, and anecdotally it does make a difference breathing in places like the London Underground – which historically has had “dangerously high” levels of pollution.

With regards to the other features, the external lights are neat and can cycle between a rainbow of colours or two shades for a ‘breathing’ effect – but much like light-up computers and mice are only as compelling as the wearer thinks they are.

The internal light does make it easier to communicate (and hopefully future Zephyrs could have a dedicated button to activate it) and could be helpful to deaf people who have had trouble lipreading others or reading facial cues from people wearing conventional masks.

Assuming, that is, other people take it up. There are some things that may give people reservations about the Zephyr – some of which are issues of the product, and some of which are political.

At £99.99, the Zephyr is more expensive than other masks, and a pack of 10 filters (which Razer says should be changed every three days) is £29.99. A reusable half mask respirator, meanwhile, costs around £20, with the filters costing around £8.

The mask is designed to be water resistant for small splashes but is not recommended for wet weather conditions, which is not ideal for Britain’s unpredictable weather; and taking the mask off when wearing glasses and wireless headphones can turn into a battle to keep everything on the head, especially for those with longer hair, compared to a mask that hooks around the ears.

During testing, the companion app for the mask only worked when provided with location tracking information – deny that permission, and it became unusable. A Razer spokesperson said that this was only used for the beta test and, when the mask is available, the app will not require location data to work.

A cloth mask, despite what the more outlandish conspiracy theorists might believe, cannot track you.

Then there are the ‘culture war’ issues around masks, which sparked early last year and still continue. In July this year, face masks were no longer made compulsory – made instead into “matters of personal choice”. Health Secretary Sajid Javid has urged his Conservative colleagues to wear masks in the crowded Commons chamber, although it has been noted that few MPs have been pictured in the Commons wearing masks.

Even when the pandemic passes it is possible that masks will become needed to fight pollution, but that political debate has raged long before the coronavirus spread and will likely continue long after. In 2018, toxic air in the UK was deemed a “national health emergency”, yet two years later, it was found that 60 per cent of the population was living with air pollution above legal limits. Although “broadly speaking, overall air pollution trends are declining”, Dr Loh says, “there are some areas where tackling the issue may be more difficult, for example in areas with busy roads”

Environmentally, a long-term mask like the Razer Zephyr may avoid millions of masks being used then thrown away every single day and clogging up ocean ecosystems; but conversely, some researchers have said it might encourage a false sense of security and that “once clogged, masks are worse than useless”.

There is no doubt the Zephyr is futuristic, but whether it is a future will come to pass in the UK remains to be seen and there will be many factors about cleanliness and upkeep wearers will need to consider about masks in ways they have not done before – even now.

The Zephyr itself feels like a product that would have been an ideal investment at the beginning of lockdown, but the lack of restrictions and the feeling that the pandemic is over (despite rising cases) may lower the public’s interests.

In other countries, however, it may have a greater adoption rate. Many people wore N95 masks in China to protect themselves against air pollution as it was more common, and it could find popularity in heavily polluted areas of India (although the vast wealth disparity means many might not be able to afford the Zephyr).

Razer’s approach appears to be providing an option not advice. The company says it wants to give users “as much choice as possible, including the choice whether to wear a mask or not” to provide protection in “busy, urban environments, and especially with the upcoming flu season”.

In the UK “the issue of mask wearing and infectious diseases will not go away”, Dr Loh predicts. “COVID isn’t going to go away nor will the flu”, and an increase of phenomena like wildfires could also see “episodes of extremely high pollution where it would be advisable for people to wear masks”.

Should that happen, people may find new products like the Zephyr, and other masks like it, to be a breath of fresh air.

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