Adapting its translation software to meet the needs of a mid-pandemic world, Japanese startup Donut Robotics has created smart masks to aid in translation needs.
As the number of people wearing masks grows during the pandemic, Donut Robotics has developed new smart masks that go well beyond PPE, and fall short as well. Connecting to an app through Bluetooth, “C-Face” transcribes dictation, amplifies the wearer’s voice, and translates speech into eight different languages.
Donut Robotics first developed the translation software for a robot project called Cinnamon, which was designed as part of a Haneda Robotics Lab initiative to create robots that would provide tourists at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport with relevant information for their travels. One of four translation robot prototypes selected in 2016, Cinnamon began providing services at the airport in 2017.
When COVID hit, however, and airports shut down globally, Donut Robotics sought a way to adapt their translation technology and progress the technology while the tourism industry struggles.
Although smart masks mostly covers the face, their silicone and plastic design is not a proper substitute for PPE, and the company suggests wearing them over a standard cloth face mask. Embedded with a microphone that connects to the user’s smartphone, smart masks may contribute to social distancing norms while simultaneously serving as a walkie-talkie, scribe, and translator.
Haneda Robotics Lab originally stated as one of its consideration for choosing Cinnamon was how well the software performed in noisy environments. That quality could bode well for Donut Robotics’ transition to mobile.
Despite the company’s exciting developments this year, however, questions remain about the scalability and language capacity of the smart mask. Donut Robotics hopes to release its first wave of distribution in Japan, making 5,000-10,000 smart masks available by December of this year, but does not expect to expand overseas until mid-2021.
Furthermore, while the translation capabilities of the smart mask include some of the world’s most common languages like English, Spanish, and Chinese (presumably Mandarin), Donut Robotics will have to expand considerably before it can compete with the likes of Google Translate or Microsoft Translator.
Still, company CEO Taisuke Ono believes the “the technology is better than Google API, or other popular technologies” for Japanese language users, because most competitor apps focus primarily on translating to and from English.