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Fresh air, fresh fashion: how O2O2 is driving data-driven solutions for healthier cities

Face masks to avoid disease or reduce the effects of air pollution. An app. Fashion Week. Rather disparate things, no? Not if you’re O2O2.

There are a lot of face masks out there (including some rather fashionable ones, like the Karen Walker-designed MEO, which Idealog profiled back in 2017). But they don’t have an app and haven’t been on runways at Fashion Weeks around the world like O2O2 – born in New Zealand – has been. 

“O2O2 create a highly localised pocket of slightly pressurised clean air in front of the nose and mouth,” says CEO Dan Bowden of how it works. 

“We achieve this through the use of fans on either side of the face, which pull the polluted air through an active nanofiber cleaning it in the process. This now clean air is propelled, colliding in front of the nose and mouth. When air collides, it is a higher air pressure than the ambient environment. 

By creating this pocket of slightly pressurised clean air, no polluted air can enter – it’s a little like the clean air manufacturing facilities, but a personalised, portable air system.” 

So, kind of like portable fans? Not quite. At least, not when there’s also an app that works with both Android and Apple to go with the mask. “O2O2 was designed as new solution to air pollution and is as such a digital native,” says Bowden. 

“What that means is that that too often hardware designers tag on an app, so they can say they have a smart device. What they really mean is that it’s connected. For us, the app is core to the overall experience – the app puts the user in control of the air that they breath. It can tell them of the status of air pollution where they are, inform them that they are protected and inform them of the status of their facewear protection. From this base there is a whole host of features we can start to add to the user experience which can enhance the user’s life.”

Profiled by the likes of Forbes, Engadget, Fast Company, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Highsnobiety and more, O2O2 made big waves a couple months ago when the facemasks were worn by models showcasing Seoul-based label IISE’s Autumn/Winter 2019 collection at New York Fashion Week. Then, the masks were worn again during IISE’s show at Seoul Fashion Week in March.

 

“We’re not a fashion group,” Bowden says. “At the heart of our product is science, which is why we’ve been able to achieve the performance improvements over the existing solutions. But after the science has been achieved we really need to be focussed on how the user interacts with the product – and respiratory protection is by definition on the face of the user.

"As such, we have to have to work on getting the look right and make it something people want to wear. For this we partner with third parties, designers who work with the human form. In this way we hope that we are avoiding the pitfalls other wearable manufacturers have fallen into of simply trying to put technology onto humans, as opposed to our approach of making technology something that the user wants to wear, both for aesthetic and functional reasons. This creates a desirable friction in the product design process.”

As buzz builds, Bowden says O2O2 is “currently pre-market and in a testing phase with a select number of collaborators.” That being said, he says the interest so far has been nothing short of surprising. 

“I put the reaction down to a deep dissatisfaction with the current solutions on the market,” he says. “The existing solutions are inherently inhuman in their design, the seal is uncomfortable and presumes a certain facial morphology, be the wearer male, female, Asian, white or Māori. The mask hides the user from the world, and a smile is the most basic forms of human communication.” 

Of course, Bowden says the team has learnt a few lessons along the way – lessons other Kiwi companies can also learn from. “Key lessons would be around two integrally related factors: grit and focus,” he says. “Both are required, particularly in those early stages where you’ll hear ‘no’ a lot. Grit is a positive, personal and organisational trait based on perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal.

“And it was that goal focus which we had – which was to enable people to live without fear of air pollution – that has made it easy to highlight the positives in a negative situation, thereby enabling the team to refocus and come back stronger. This same goal focus has made it easier to get some amazing partners on board, as diverse as the US Navy, MINI, Revolution Fibres, AUT and fashion labels. It’s amazing when you have a positive goal – greater than just a financial return – that is clear and succinct how quickly people will join you on that journey. 

“In having this focus and grit the impact that a small bunch of guys has been far greater than we could have ever expected. We’ve solved problems that make a difference to users in the process just by trying to solve our core mission.” 

Bowden says no matter what collaborations O2O2 partners up for, that core mission of making the masks available to the public cannot be forgotten – not only because of the protection the masks offer from pollution (as well as dust and sand – issues, of course, in many parts of the world, from Dubai to New Delhi to Beijing to Brisbane), but also because the data they collect can be analysed to help develop solutions that could hopefully reduce or even end human-caused air pollution once and for all.

 “Now that we have solved the personal protection problem, through better design we can use the data we can harvest to create the wider public solution,” says Bowden. “So by definition our personal solution is a digital native device, and if we have a digital native device this enables us to start collecting the data on pollution from users – which means users are creating the environmental data to solve the problem for future generations.

“At a personal level the information on respiration rates and volumes are an incredibly valuable pool of information that no one else currently has access to. We will be able to quickly turn this into meaningful outcomes for the user. “The runway now is really to get the runway to the consumer, the person in the street.”

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