Intelligent Face Mask Crosses the Language Barrier

A Japanese robotics company creates a smart face mask that can translate speech into eight languages using an embedded microphone, artificial intelligence, and a smartphone.

 

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Image credit: Reuters (Donut Robotics' CEO Taisuke Ono with the C-FACE Smart Mask)

Japanese startup Donut Robotics was running out of money. The company had received accolades for developing Cinnamon, a robot prototype designed to provide information and directions to tourists. In a pilot program at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, people found Cinnamon easy to use, fun to look at, and capable of translating languages even amid the buzz of a busy airport. 

Then COVID-19 hit and tourism tanked. The Cinnamon project was tabled. Donut Robotics had to pivot. The company applied Cinnamon’s translation functionality to a more popular item: face masks. Already common in Japan, face masks became ubiquitous and Donut Robotics took them to the next level.

Donut Robotics created the C-Face Smart Mask. Made of plastic and silicone, it contains an embedded microphone, which connects to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. When the wearer talks, the app translates the speech into text. 

The technology supports speech translation between Japanese and Chinese, English, French, Indonesian, Korean, Spanish, Thai, and  Vietnamese. Created with the help of translation experts, the Donut Robotics software uses machine learning and is designed for people who speak Japanese. Most translation apps are geared for English-based translations and don’t work as well for other languages, says Donut Robotics CEO Taisuke Ono. 

Benefits of Masking 

The smart mask can also make phone calls and amplify the wearer’s voice. The amplification allows the speaker to be as far away as 10 meters, about 32 feet, so people can maintain social distancing and still communicate easily. In a medical setting, staff can interact with patients from a safe distance; in large meetings, a speaker can be heard clearly while still wearing a mask for protection.

The app captures sound and can transcribe dictation. The spoken word appears as text or characters on the user’s phone, creating a record of what was said. That can be helpful when asking for directions or taking notes in a meeting. The company is planning to add image support for augmented reality and virtual reality in the future.

Mask that translates languages

Image credit: Donut Robotics

The C-Face mask is plastic, so it has holes to allow the wearer to breathe. Because it doesn’t protect against Coronavirus, it is designed to be worn over a more protective face covering. 

The initial reaction has been positive if fundraising is an indication. In June, Donut Robotics raised about $265,000 in just 37 minutes on a Japanese crowdfunding site. A second round in July brought the total up to more than $800,000. 

The C-Face will be available in Japan this year, before expanding internationally. It is expected to reach the U.S. market sometime after April 2021. The C-Face mask is priced between $40 - $50, and users will pay an additional subscription fee for the app.