Next time someone calls you a “C-Face,” they might just be complimenting your tech.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and what people need these days is face masks. And although Japan has long embraced the practice of putting cloth over their mouths, the current pandemic has really kicked up demand for fashionable and practical alternatives.

Now, Tokyo start-up Donut Robotics are set to release what they are calling a “smart mask” this December, which will bring a whole new range of functionality to the humble mask. However, this product isn’t actually a filter itself, rather it’s a plastic and silicon cover for a standard face mask. When fitted, it provides a Bluetooth linkup with your smartphone which you can interact with verbally using a built-in mic.

As shown in the demo video below, C-Face – which seems to have been wisely localized to “C-Mask” in English – allows the user to present their speech in an on-screen chat window, or audibly over devices’ speakers in a number of languages.

That alone might not sound like much, since you could probably achieve the same effect with a pair of wireless earbuds and Google Translate. But the intriguing aspect about C-Face is the “high-precision translation technology” it boasts.

Donut Robotics was originally working on a translation robot for Haneda Airport but has since had to pivot to this project due to the COVID-19 situation, so there is a chance C-Face could have some decent translation power under the hood. If so, it would be certainly worth the expected 4,000 to 5,000 yen (US$38 to $47) price tag.

People seem to be excited about C-Face, as a crowdfunding attempt last month yielded 28 million yen ($265,000) in only 37 minutes and reached a total of 56.6 million yen ($536,000). Donut says they’ve been getting inquiries from 35 other countries as well, including the U.S. and the U.K.

The buzz online in Japan has been pretty enthusiastic too and surprisingly less cynical than usual.

“That’s really innovative!”
“I want to buy that right away. Of course, it’s made in Japan.”
“A great example of adapting to fit the corona era.”
“But it’s just for translation, so I wonder if people will mistakenly buy it as a regular mask.”
“I want this. Please give it the same accuracy as DeepL.”
“I never even thought of adding functions like that to a mask.”

I could see how having a C-Face could be useful. Sometimes, simple communication at a convenience store counter is hampered by everyone’s face being covered and a plastic sheet hanging between us to the point that I have to shout that I don’t need a plastic bag, only to get one anyway. This system could circumvent all of that.

Moreover, one of these things would make me feel like any number of cool characters from fine literature; such as Optimus Prime, Shredder, or the Humungus from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

So, they definitely have their charm, but I think it will be an uphill battle for C-Face to get wide acceptance, and all that really hinges on how well it translates. Many “revolutionary translators” have come before it, only to become forgotten disappointments in the end.

It would be great if it does work out though, and maybe Donut Robotics can finally afford a Shutterstock account so they can get rid of those watermarks in their PR video.

Source: Donut Robotics, CNN Japan, Hachima Kiko
Top image: YouTube/Donut Robotics
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