How Razer built the internet’s favorite COVID mask

Since COVID struck in late 2019, numerous firms starting from Hole to Nike to Apple started designing and producing masks and different PPE. Most of them have been easy, low-tech equipment—a lot of which have been produced just for their very own workers to return to work.

By early 2021, we’d all seen so many mask designs that our eyes glazed over. And that’s when the PC gaming company Razer—identified for producing high-end mice, keyboards, online game controllers, and laptops—launched a mask idea that nobody noticed coming.

Undertaking Hazel [Photo: Razer]

Referred to as Project Hazel, it was principally a maximalist, eye-melting gaming PC to your face: a battery powered mask with customizable, rainbow LED lights and a microphone/speaker system to amplify your voice for others to listen to. However its most tantalizing promise was the UX of simpler respiration. It used followers to suck air out and in by its N95-grade filters, in order that you might inhale extra naturally.

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Hazel (left) and Zephyr (proper) [Images: Razer]

After the idea debuted at the Shopper Electronics Present in January 2021, it went viral throughout tech and gaming websites. In flip, Razer green-lit the product for manufacturing. There was only one drawback: Hazel was principally only a drawing somewhat than a confirmed, working prototype. Wait, there have been two issues: Razer had built numerous ergonomic mice earlier than, however by no means one thing to wrap round your nostril and mouth—and by no means one thing supposed to guard you from microbes. And truly make it three issues: Razer knew that, with the shifting tides of the world pandemic, for this product to be related, it must ship in lower than a yr.

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[Photo: Razer]

“It was ‘panic stations!’ to [the design team], and mechanical engineers have been freaking out a bit,” says Charlie Bolton, head of commercial design at Razer. “Often a product takes a few yr to make. We actually needed to get everyone concerned to get this mask out.”

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[Image: courtesy Razer]

Finally, Razer shipped the renamed Zephyr mask in October of this yr for $100. It has offered greater than 10,000 items thus far, and has been constrained solely by the stock it could actually feasibly produce throughout COVID. (The corporate declined to share how many individuals have signed as much as be notified about future Zephyr releases.) However the closing product is notably completely different in all types of how from the idea, as a result of the strategy of designing and engineering a product introduces way more constraints than sketching up an thought.

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[Photo: Razer]

“We construct wearables: glasses and headphones…however a mask, there’s much more [to deal with],” says Bolton. “Each face is completely different. It needed to match females with smaller faces and males with bigger faces. We had all these restrictions…With the authentic idea, we didn’t have to contemplate all these restrictions. We simply had to ensure it seemed good.”

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[Photo: Razer]

Razer used simulations of face morphologies by growth to make sure the mask’s core geometry may work for most individuals. This finally led to the first large compromise of the design: The unique seal pressed excessive towards your cheeks, providing a comparatively spacious design for respiration, harking back to quaint fuel masks. The brand new seal was a lot smaller, wrapping round your nostril and mouth nearly like a jock strap in your face—a bit snugger than the common mask. Razer realized the best choice wasn’t to reinvent the wheel, however to undertake the common silicon seal design which you can see in different N95 merchandise.

The unique idea additionally urged that the mask would loop over your ears. This deep into the pandemic, we all know that ear loops might be uncomfortable on even a feather-light mask. In the meantime, Zephyr can be full of motors and batteries.

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[Image: courtesy Razer]

Razer had been experimenting with 3D prints, finalizing these types earlier than constructing the tooling to take them into mass manufacturing. The issue with these printed mock ups? “They don’t mirror the weight,” says Bolton. When the workforce had full prototypes to check out, they handed them round the workplace for suggestions, and discovered that the weight of the mask was simply too nice for anchoring in your ears. (The ultimate mask weighs in at 206 grams on my scale, or almost half a pound. A KN95 weighs all of 6g, or about the weight of a nickel.)

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[Image: courtesy Razer]

“That was really certainly one of the simpler issues to vary,” Bolton says, as a result of the workforce developed a backup plan: A dual-strap system that wrapped all the manner round the again of your head. Ditching the promised voice amplification characteristic helped, too. The more difficult change that Razer needed to make was round the mask’s most promising characteristic: Its respiration and filtration system.

As proposed, the mask was utterly sealed, save for 2 followers (every match with a small disc filter). One fan was an air consumption. The opposite was an air outtake.

“After we acquired the mask [prototype], there was concern about air circulation…you felt slightly [trapped] in the bubble. That was nearly a present stopper,” says Bolton. “The primary factor if you’re carrying a mask is to really feel comfy, and never claustrophobic.”

Even after optimizing the fan dimension inside the constraints of the casing, and permitting the person to select certainly one of three fan speeds, the two-port design simply didn’t work. So the workforce reworked it. They turned each followers into consumption followers, which elevated the quantity of air coming into the mask (and you’ll really feel a breeze round your nostril after they’re cranked all the manner up, which does assist offset the cosy match of the mask’s seal). Additionally they punched a gap in the mask close to your mouth (including one other filter to this spot), creating one other level for exhalation and inhalation, albeit with no fan help.

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[Image: courtesy Razer]

As for a way you add these little filters—that are about the dimension of a small coin—the workforce had initially tried a screw mechanism for eradicating the followers and mouthpiece. When this added an excessive amount of thickness to the product, they opted for magnets as a substitute. You simply pull the sections off the mask, add a filter, and snap them again on. Whereas it may be arduous to really feel such as you’ve lined these filters up completely, Razer factors out that the system has been independently certified with a Bacterial Filtration Effectivity of over 99%, like an N95. Even nonetheless, the Zephyr sits inside this bizarre area of not-quite-regulated private protecting gear. Very similar to any outdated fabric mask you purchase, it’s not an authorized N95 mask, and Razer doesn’t advocate it for medical use. (Razer’s personal advantageous print insists it’s not even to be thought of PPE.)

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[Image: courtesy Razer]

The wild west of PPE apart, the Zephyr raises bigger questions on the future norms of masking throughout an ongoing pandemic.

When Undertaking Hazel debuted final winter, the world was determined. With no vaccines out there, society had no manner of realizing who may very well be contaminated and spreading COVID at any given second. For lack of a greater choice, many people Zoomed holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas in the identify of public well being. Hazel was a beacon in the darkness. But by the time I obtained a assessment unit in the mail, just some weeks in the past, the world had modified. We’ve booster photographs, fast residence assessments, and all types of different (admittedly imperfect) COVID mitigation methods.

COVID remains to be working rampant, however as I checked out the shiny field with these overt LEDs, I questioned who was that previous me who felt so enthusiastic about this vibrant celebration of Hazmat aesthetics? Donning the mask for the first time, I watched because it routinely cycled by a rainbow gradient of colour on my face—there purely as a vogue assertion. I imagined carrying this on the prepare or to the grocery retailer, garnering unusual seems to be from each aspect of the political and scientific spectrum. Simply how afraid is that this man, they’d marvel, and why is he…glowing? 

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[Image: courtesy Razer]

The followers whir fairly loudly, and talking over them can be a problem at high velocity. However I’ll admit, the breeze feels good. I simply want the seal round my nostril and mouth radiated out farther, as in the authentic design, in order that I may really feel the air on my cheeks. And I’m wondering how it will really feel on a scorching day—higher than a sweaty mask, or not? As a result of the physique is difficult plastic, and that materials received’t breathe. As for these LEDs, I hop into the Zephyr app and shortly deactivate them. There’s one thing to say for this straightforward person customization. If I wished, I assume I may have chosen to go away them on and match the colour to my shirt.

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[Photo: Razer]

Finally, I really feel like the Zephyr tapped right into a COVID fantasy that was excellent for the web with a nation underneath lockdown, however doesn’t fairly translate to the actual world—or not less than it doesn’t appear to proper now, throughout this specific chapter of the pandemic the place Omicron is frightening but seemingly mutable by boosters, and masks can’t defend us from our ever-growing must socialize in-person with family and friends. However with a extra lethal variant? I may change my tune.

And so I ask Bolton, does he consider that individuals, who have been so enthusiastic about Zephyr at the begin of the yr, nonetheless really need to put on this? He counters, pretty, that high-end masks, full of know-how and fashionably expressive, are a very new class—and never only for Razer, however the world at massive.

“It’s very a lot in that early section of, nobody is aware of the place the market will go. I feel it’s nonetheless related,” says Bolton. “Does it make folks very self-conscious that they’re carrying this mask on their face? Is it an excessive amount of? I feel folks get used to it. I bear in mind first carrying the fabric mask [self-consciously], now I’m completely advantageous with it. I fairly like carrying it in sure conditions. I feel, doubtlessly, that’s a manner good masks will grow to be extra mainstream in a manner. However once more who is aware of. This product is sort of a one-off.”