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Japan’s Donut Robotics and its new high-tech face mask

The most important fact about face masks during the Covid19 epidemic has been their scarcity. Especially during the early phases of the epidemic, but even now months later, high quality face masks are difficult to get. People all over the world have been making due with cotton masks, scarves, and all sorts of improvised coverings. The general trend has been toward cotton masks, because they’re the easiest to make in large quantities, while still providing protection that is better than no mask at all. In Japan the most common cotton masks are called “Abe masks”, after the Prime Minister who encouraged everyone to wear them, including himself and his cabinet.

But now there is a Japanese startup called Donut Robotics that is planning to take masks into a new, hi-tech direction. It’s gotten a lot of press in Japan, and has garnered huge interest on Makuake, Japan’s version of Kickstarter (a crowdfunding site for early stage startups).

First, let’s introduce Donut Robotics. Donut’s founder Taisuke Ono is unusual among Japanese in that he became a startup founder directly after university, focusing on product design and starting several product design related companies. Thinking about his next move, Taisuke considered what the largest business opportunity would be over the next 100 years, and narrowed his focus on robotics and AI. Japanese have a long history of interest and inventiveness with robots. Unlike in the West, robots have generally been portrayed very sympathetically in Japanese pop culture, and Japan has been waiting for non-industrial robots for a very long time.

In 2014, Taisuke designed an affordable robot called Cinnamon and founded Donut Robotics in order to make and sell it. Getting a contract with Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Cinnamon has been field tested and refined there since 2018, as a replacement for information staff, and incorporating an Android operating system, touch screen, AI, and face and voice recognition technology. With the pandemic, Donut is planning to add temperature scanning functionality to Cinnamon and roll it out at hospitals for temperature checks and patient care starting by the end of 2020. The unique thing about Cinnamon is the price. It will sell for ¥100,000, or approximately US$950, and will also be available on installment or lease for just ¥8,000 (US$76) a month, making it very affordable for all sorts of small businesses and even individuals. If Donut Robotics can succeed in providing a functioning service industry robot in that price range, the range of potential use cases and chance of success would seem to be very high, both in Japan and around the world. As a result, Donut boasts a sterling list of Japanese heavy hitter partners and investors, including Hitachi Systems, Mitsui Fudosan, NEC, NTT, and Boardwalk Capital.

Once the Covid19 pandemic hit, Donut Robotics went about thinking how they could contribute something useful, and came up with their prototype smart mask, the C-Mask, which they hope to start producing and selling as soon as fall/winter 2020, again for a very affordable price of ¥3,980 (US$38). The starting point was noting that maintaining two meters of social distancing while speaking to other people through a regular face mask is quite difficult, and tiring to your vocal cords, (not to mention the effect of plastic partitions in hospitals, shops, banks, etc.). Further, Donut expects wearing masks in environments like airplanes to continue for years to come, especially in Asia where people have been used to wearing masks for a long time, so the company does not expect the market for masks to vanish at the first hint of a vaccine like people in the West might assume.

The fundamental purpose of the C-Mask is to make communication easier. It is meant to be worn over a regular cotton or surgical mask, and comes with a microphone and Bluetooth connection to your smartphone. Your speech will be transcribed by the mask working in concert with your phone, and with the added really cool bonus of automatic translation between any of 8 languages. You can send the transcribed text via text message or a Donut Robotics app, or you can also use the mask as a transcription tool if you want a record what you say for later on.

This voice to text and then send or record function will not only help regular users who have masks, partitions and social distance muffling their words, but it could also prove very useful to the hearing impaired and to those in environments where sounds are cut off by walls, like in hospitals and airports.

In a world where everyone has to wear a mask, especially in enclosed environments, the idea of adding value and technological functionality to mask is both new and very appealing. Donut Robotics is also talking about adding Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) functionality in the future, although the first iteration of the mask will focus on the microphone and transcription communication function.

For me, C-Mask seems like one of those “why didn’t anyone else think of this before” inventions, that if it can really be sold at or even near ¥3,980, is bound to be a success and garner interest all over the world. And it opens up a whole new world of treating face masks as a smartphone accessory, like watches and earphones have become. When you have a supercomputer in your pocket (as a modern smartphone would have seemed even in the 1990s), connecting it to peripherals (like face masks) and extending its functionality and practical usefulness will help make our everyday lives better, and create economic and investing opportunities here in Japan and all over the world.

If you are interested in Donut Robotics and can read any Japanese, these Fundinno and Makuake links to their fundraising efforts will be great for learning more about this very interesting company! There is not a lot information about Taisuke Ono and Donut Robotics in English yet, which is why I wrote this article, but I expect a lot more to be written about them and Taisuke’s ambition to turn Donut into a Japanese “unicorn” startup in the next few years.

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