We track our steps, our heartbeats, our sleep. Now, the mask company AirPop has unveiled a product and companion app that tracks our breath, our air quality, and our mask filter’s effectiveness.
Do we really need more metrics to count?
AirPop’s founder Chris Hosmer says, actually, ya we do.
“It’s an additional dimension to understanding what is healthy,” Hosmer said. “Breathing is actually a really vital part of not only physical health, but our psychological or emotional health, too.”
AirPop makes masks fit for both everyday wear and exercise. They’re made from athletic gear materials, have enough structure to enable easier breathing, and use replaceable filters. Its most recent product, the $149.99 Active+, adds a sensor it calls the Halo to the mask, which monitors breath, air quality, and filter efficacy, and sends that data back to a companion app. It’ll be available for purchase online some time in January 2021 and at select retailers early this year.
Lots of companies are making masks these days, but AirPop has actually been in the game since 2015. Inspired by the dangers the unhealthy air of Shanghai posed to his newborn daughter, and his own desire to not let that air quality hamper his ability to go on runs, Hosmer founded AirPop in hopes of making a mask that would be both effective and comfortable. It was just by chance (or forethought) that, thanks to the pandemic, the whole world started needing masks four years later. Luckily, AirPop masks are designed to protect against pathogens (like the coronavirus), as well as unhealthy air.
Other companies at this year’s CES, like Razer and Maskfone, have added electronic components to their masks to then call them “smart.” But the Active+ Halo is actually like a fitness tracker for your lungs and your environment. The fact that it can tell you when it’s time to change your filter based on your custom usage (and not just a standard “every two weeks” like other companies), seems especially useful; changing mask filters is a task that’s easy to forget but extremely important to do if you want to wear a mask that’s actually effective.
Mashable spoke with Hosmer about the experience of being a mask maker amid a pandemic, and why he thinks we all really need a smart mask.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MASHABLE: You guys were a mask company before the whole world started wearing masks. How has the last year gone for you?
Chris Hosmer: The founding of our company was really based on a broad sort of mandate around respiratory protection for personal and public health. There are quite a few different types of airborne threats — pathogens being only one of them — but that happens to be something that now the whole world is very tuned into and has become kind of normal. So the last year has been a really interesting ride.
MASHABLE: Is the Active+ more about preventing against pathogens, or improving air quality?
CH: From the very beginning, we had a very robust approach to protection, so we protect from all three airborne threat types. Those are pathogens, like we’re dealing with now and the current pandemic. There are ecological airborne risks — those would be things like wildfires, or dust storms, things of that nature. And then there’s anthropogenic, which is man-made or human-made air pollution like carbon combustion from factory emissions and things like that. So, from the very outset, we were really looking at covering all of those. From a protection standpoint, it’s really all three.
MASHABLE: What’s behind the design?
CH: We think of ourselves as a performance garment. We use a lot more cues from apparel and the kind of construction and materials that you would find in high-tech outerwear. Respiratory protection is not necessarily sexy. But if we can make a product that people really think is cool and wanna wear, we can kind of get over that kind of mental barrier.
MASHABLE: What makes the mask smart?
CH: The first thing is, we can track breathing health. And so we can give consumers a real-time understanding of their breath count, and the breath cycles, so the rhythm in which they’re breathing, and the volume of air that they’re moving. And that’s not something that’s really been able to be done before in the consumer context, and so it allows us to start to understand the role breathing plays in our everyday lives as well as our active lives.
“We do think masking — as unpleasant as it is — is going to probably grow as a category.”
Secondly, it provides a kind of a filter management and status dashboard so it allows us to understand when ultimately we should change our filters because that’s something that’s a kind of a pain point for most masks. People don’t really know when they’re supposed to change out their filters, or if they’re supposed to change them out. But because we understand your breathing behavior and your local air quality, and kind of the geography that you live in and some of your biometrics, we’re able to basically calculate the lifespan of your filter based on your usage. … The mask giving you feedback is not something that’s ever been done before.
The third thing that we do is we provide a kind of a local air quality indexing. In Asia, checking your air quality is akin to checking the weather for the day. Understanding the ambient air quality around you really does start to figure into your everyday understanding of what’s healthy and what’s not. Using that metric, we’re able to tell you the delta between the air that you’re breathing in, and your ambient air. So, how much better the air I’m breathing in through the mask is versus the unfiltered air outside.
MASHABLE: Being able to see the proof in that “delta” between the difference in outside air quality versus what you’re actually breathing in through the mask seems really gratifying. And more accurate, customized reminders to change your filter are clearly super useful. But why is breath itself something people would want to track?
CH: I developed this product essentially for myself because I’m a runner, and I had been running in Shanghai a lot, but it was really polluted. So I wanted to be able to not only run in an environment that you really shouldn’t be exercising in, but I also wanted to understand how my breathing figured into my heart rate and my step count, and a lot of the other things that I’d been tracking. It’s an additional dimension to understanding what is healthy for me.
Longer term, breathing is actually a really vital part of not only our physical health, but our psychological or emotional health, too. There’s more of an understanding around the importance of breathing and breath mechanics than there ever has been. So I think we’re tagging on to that trend and really giving users a more granular understanding of their breath.
MASHABLE: Do you have a favorite metric, or a metric you check all the time?
CH: I’m always looking at my “breaths per minute.” That’s a combination of me wearing it everyday just out of the house if I’m shopping or in town, as well as when I’m running, in the same way that you can look at your resting heart rate and your active heart rate. That’s the thing I always look at for breath count. So in general, fewer breaths per minute, the better … you’re more relaxed, you’re taking deeper breaths using diaphragmatic breathing rather than shallow breathing. Of course, when you’re exercising, that breaths per minute goes up quite a lot. So I’m always very interested in looking at breaths per minute as an indicator of overall health.
MASHABLE: Are masks here to stay even after Covid?
CH: I do think that North America takes its cue from Asia. East Asia is a mask-wearing culture, not only because of things that need to be filtered out of their air, but also there’s a culture of masking for hygiene and for courtesy. I don’t think we’re there yet in the US, but what’s true is, as Covid has really taken over the world, the awareness globally of the need to protect oneself from environmental airborne risk and also social airborne risk has gone up a lot. So, once Covid eventually dies down, I think there will be that residual knowledge, and maybe a little bit of apprehension if another epidemic comes, or even more consciousness of the air quality around [us].
There’s been quite a lot of science just within the last couple of years around eco toxicity and how that affects lower-income communities as well as communities of color disproportionately to white and affluent communities. I think that disparity is going to continue to be discussed, and rightly so. And that’s an area that we really want to focus on. That issue of social and racial equity is going to continue to be part of the conversation. So we do think, unfortunately, masking — as unpleasant as it is — is going to probably grow as a category. And we want to be able to provide the products that allow people to get back to their normal lives with minimal discomfort and minimal barriers.