Japanese robot startup launches ‘connected’ face mask

The new plastic “c-mask”, which will be available in September, will fit over standard face masks and will be able to transcribe speech into text messages, make calls, or amplify the mask wearer’s voice. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 June 2020

Japanese robot startup launches ‘connected’ face mask

  • Firm turned its development research in a new direction after the pandemic stifled demand for its robot products

TOKYO: As face coverings become the norm amid the coronavirus pandemic, Japanese startup Donut Robotics has developed an Internet-connected “smart mask” that can transmit messages and translate from Japanese into eight other languages.

The white plastic “c-mask” fits over standard face masks and connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone and tablet application that can transcribe speech into text messages, make calls, or amplify the mask wearer’s voice.

“We worked hard for years to develop a robot and we have used that technology to create a product that responds to how the coronavirus has reshaped society,” said Taisuke Ono, the chief executive of Donut Robotics.

Donut Robotics’ engineers came up with the idea for the mask as they searched for a product to help the company survive the pandemic. When the coronavirus struck, it had just secured a contract to supply robot guides and translators to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, a product that faces an uncertain future after the collapse of air travel.




Donut Robotics’ first 5,000 c-masks will be shipped to buyers in Japan starting in September. (Reuters)

Donut Robotics’ first 5,000 c-masks will be shipped to buyers in Japan starting in September, with Ono looking to sell in China, the US and Europe too. There has been strong interest, he said.

At about $40 per mask, Donut Robotics is aiming at a mass market that did not exist until a few months ago. One aim, he said, is to generate revenue from subscriber services offered via an app that users will download.

Donut Robotics built a prototype connected mask within a month by adapting translation software developed for its robot and a mask design that one of the company’s engineers, Shunsuke Fujibayashi, created four years ago for a student project to interpret speech by mapping face muscles.

Ono raised 28 million yen ($260,000) for development by selling Donut Robotics shares through Japanese crowdfunding site Fundinno.

“We raised our initial target of
7 million yen within three minutes and stopped after 37 minutes when we had reached 28 million yen,” he said. 


Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

Updated 16 min 16 sec ago

Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

  • This form of transport means freedom — and health and safety into the bargain

PARIS: After months of working on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19, Spanish nurse Yone Alberich was ready for a holiday, but the question was how.

Going on holiday generally meant flying abroad — but with the virus still very much in the air, she didn’t want to take a plane. 

Nor did Alberich want to stay in a hotel or be around crowds of people. So she and her husband rented a motorhome.

“The idea was to keep away from people to avoid getting infected,” said the 32-year-old, who has a toddler and lives in the Valencian coastal town of Castellon.

“And with COVID, what could be better than traveling around with your house on your back?“

With social distancing the new norm in Europe to avoid any fresh outbreaks, there has been a shift in thinking about holidays, with a recent survey showing 90 percent of Spaniards would remain in Spain rather than traveling abroad. And 83 percent planned to use their own car over public transport.

Fabrizio Muzzati, who runs specialist Spanish travel agency Aquiestoy Caravaning, said that many people who never thought about a motorhome holiday are now considering it.

“At a time when the whole world is very much looking for a sense of security, there are a lot of people who are going to give it a go because of the circumstances.”

And as travel restrictions were eased, motorhome rentals resumed “intensively,” the Spanish mobile home and campervan association ASEICAR said last month, suggesting it may be “key to reviving tourism this summer.”

And it is not just in Spain. “Since the rollback, there’s been a real craze for motorhomes, everywhere,” says Francois Feuillet, president of the European Motorhome Federation. “The motorhome means freedom, savings and being green. Now we can add health and safety and for us, that’s a real boon.”

Across Europe, there has been growing interest in the sector and today there are five million users and two million vehicles in circulation, industry figures show. In Germany, Europe’s main market, more than 10,000 new motorhomes were registered in May, an increase of 32 percent year-on-year, while France added 3,529 new registrations — up nearly 2 percent.

And in Spain, a much smaller market but where interest is growing rapidly, there were 1,208 new vehicles registered in June — up 20 percent on last year, ASEICAR figures show.

There has also been a jump in demand in the rental market.

Yescapa, a peer-to-peer rental platform, registered more than 32,500 bookings across Europe in June, with requests for July and August 60 percent higher than in the same period last year.

Of that number, just under a third — or 9,435 — were in Spain.Despite the reopening of Europe’s borders on June 15, most people are reluctant to go abroad, Yescapa co-founder Benoit Panel said.

“Since COVID, there have been almost no cross-booking rentals,” he said, referring to travelers booking outside their country of origin, who usually constitute 20 percent of reservations.

First-time renter Jose Pascal Guiral, who runs a ceramics export business and always holidays abroad, took a motorhome as soon as lockdown ended, spending a week touring scenic mountain passes in the Spanish Pyrenees.

“It’s so much nicer than going in a plane or a hotel, it gives you a real sense of freedom. You go for a week and you feel like you’ve been on holiday for a month,” he said.

Julio Barrenengoa Gomez, director of Caravanas Holidays, said that the crisis has increased interest in national tourism.

“People tend to want a motorhome to travel around Europe but this year, they’re looking to stay here in Spain. With all our desire to visit Europe, it seems like we’ve forgotten just how beautiful Spain is. This year is going to boost national tourism.”

Others believe the health crisis will accelerate a shift away from the mass tourism of resorts, cruises and package holidays.

“This pandemic will change people’s habits because they’ll be less likely to stay in crowded places,” said Fernando Ortiz, director of established Spanish motorhome brand Benimar.

“Not necessarily because of the risk — they will find a vaccine — but because people like being able to change their plans from moment to moment while traveling,” he said. “And that is likely to last.”