Co-creation with designers:
developing smart face masks with by-wire.net
One of the projects under the umbrella of Human Centric Wearables is the development of smart face masks in co-creation with the designers of by-wire.net. Initiator and driving force Marina Toeters designs and produces face masks with her signature element: ‘The Fashion Filter’. These masks contain sensors made and programmed by TNO at Holst Centre that measure aspects like body temperature and pressure to the face.
The Fashion Filter is meant to make the masks more socially accepted by using cool, desirable prints. The sensors are able to check if the masks are worn and working properly. Marina collaborates with TNO at Holst Centre frequently and took the initiative for this particular fusion. “I’ve been working on mouth masks for a longer time and I wanted to demonstrate that they have more potential than just being seen as necessary evil. Also, TNO at Holst Centre makes super advanced products and I want to take these off the shelf and bring to market.”
Gain more knowledge and use that to improve the masks
Integrating the innovative expertise of TNO at Holst Centre with the face masks makes it possible to diagnose earlier and get insight on the impact of the mask on the bearers. For instance: does it make them breathe faster or more difficult? An aspect Marina can relate to on a personal level: “My father is a bit asthmatic, so for him a mask can be difficult because it’s too tight. That’s where the added value of the sensors can make an important difference. It enables us to gain more knowledge and use that to improve the masks. Because when you obligate wearing them, you want to make sure they work. That’s a very relevant discussion in the Netherlands at this moment.”
Part of that discussion is the fact that the masks meant for the common public are the so called ‘non-medical masks’, where the medical (and more effective) types are only allowed for healthcare staff. “That’s why we’ve put a lot of thought into how we can make our masks better than the common ones, but not too good so they will be forbidden”, explains Marina. “By not only adding a monitoring function and our special filters, but also by making them more attractive, comfortable and therefore accessible, so people will want to wear them. We paid a lot of attention to the fitting by using stretchable materials that also apply sufficient pressure to the face. I believe this way is the best compromise.”
Making the effort to distinguish the masks from other producers
The material, sensors and filters are also washable and reusable, because sustainability is another value Marina and her team are keen on. Even though this raises another question: “The effectiveness of the masks fades after washing. But thanks to the sensors we can measure this aspect as well and keep track of the duration, so we know when it’s time to replace the mask.”To ensure the sustainable intent even more, the masks are locally produced in her own studio in Eindhoven called the Fashion Tech Farm. And the material and sensors are completely recyclable. “All and all, we’ve made the effort to distinguish our masks from other producers, that’s the business proposition of this project”, according to Marina. “Not only because they’re smart, but also by making sure they’re tested, proven effective and reliable.”
All of which is made possible with the best technical advantage TNO at Holst Centre has to offer, she ads. “They have refined possibilities which enable us to develop the required distinction. Another plus is that they’re very involved and put in their own effort. It took a lot of time to secure the sensors properly to the fabric and TNO at Holst Centre was just as motivated to find the best solution as we were. We succeeded by using their vacuum press and heat, a great example of their specific expertise.” Just as the NFC (Near Field Communication) chip in the sensor and the surrounding antenna that enables the chip to communicate. “We’re currently experimenting with these sensors on the outer material to make them scannable from a distance with a special app on a smartphone. Just to demonstrate that this is also possible and explore more possibilities.”
Innovation always offers new ideas and possibilities
One of them is being able to measure the outer air quality, which is an interesting feature concerning other global problems like pollution. So does that mean the masks could, in time, also measure virus particles? “Unfortunately that’s not possible because it requires a viral culture, which is a laboratory technique”, Marina underlines. But if there’s anything she’s learned over the years, it’s that innovation always offers new ideas and possibilities. “That’s why I want to build bridges between R&D-organisations like TNO at Holst Centre and the fashion industry, by being the pioneer that makes technology more accessible.”
Her underlying goal is to create awareness and motivation so the renowned producing companies are convinced and willing to integrate technological possibilities with their own products. “I see myself as a fire starter. My job is to inspire and advise in order to sway the market. In the best scenario, I hope to be obsolete one day. “
Marina Toeters operates on the cutting edge of technology and fashion design. Through her business by-wire.net she stimulates collaboration between the fashion industry and technical innovators for a relevant fashion system and supportive garments for everyday use. She advises – via prototyping and a research through design approach – Philips Research, TNO at Holst Centre, fashion designers and others on product development. She designs and develops concepts to show the world how fashion could be. As a teacher, coach and researcher, she works for the fashion department in the University of the Arts Utrecht (HKU) and industrial design faculty in Eindhoven University of Technology. In 2019 Marina edited the book Unfolding Fashion Tech: Pioneers of Bright Futures and opened the Fashion Tech Farm, a studio, incubator and small-scale production facility for innovative fashion, based in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.