Its early-April announcement had some crying ‘April Fool’ and pulling out the Bane memes, but Dyson’s space-age Zone air filter was quickly confirmed as a very real addition to a growing family of wearable air filters that have fans intrigued and experts concerned.
Marketed as ‘air-purifying headphones’, the Zone kills two birds with one stone by bundling Dyson’s first-ever audio headphones – a hi-fidelity, noise-cancelling design – with an unusual crossbar that encircles the front of the face.
Whether or not the unit is playing audio, its built-in filter purifies ambient air and blows the filtered stream directly across the wearer’s nose and mouth – providing a bubble of clean air that works as an alternative to conventional filtration masks.
The speed of airflow can be adjusted to, for example, provide more air when walking briskly or running.
“We’ve spent a lot of time developing purification systems to go in people’s homes, and we want to provide that same benefit for someone when they’re on the tube train commuting,” Dyson explained.
Taking the Zone from drawing board to working product took Dyson’s engineers six years of research and 500 prototypes, as they worked to miniaturise the drum-sized filters used in the company’s room air purifiers to a size where they could be built into the headphone speakers.
Thousands of filters were tried before the company settled on a design built around electrostatic media, which attracts the dust particles from the air rather than relying exclusively on pushing massive volumes of air through the units.
Dyson markets the technology as being intended for polluted city environments, where pervasive clouds of smoke and haze compromise air quality and make breathing difficult –potentially causing breathing difficulties and asthma attacks in many people.
With around 10.7 per cent of Australians suffering from asthma, the promise of portable filtered air may rapidly help shape the target market for the Zone – which will be released later this year into a global market where competitors have already tried to cash in on widespread awareness of air quality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
LG, for its part, last year released an air-purifying mask with a more conventional mask-like shape that snugly covers the mouth and nose, with a mid-year update adding built-in microphone and speakers to ampilfy the wearer’s voice after revelations the unit’s design was an effective muffle.
Air Ring has offered yet another design, hiding the filter behind the neck and delivering clean air across a face-covering visor.
Throw in an array of wearable air purifier necklaces, and the options for portable air filtration are only continuing to expand.
But is it COVID safe?
Although more than two years of pandemic have normalised the wearing of face coverings, Dyson and its rivals are pushing the concept into new territory – and potential buyers must be aware that they are not making any claims that the units offer effective protection against COVID-19.
Air Ring, for its part, integrates N95 HEPA filters and a virucidal UV-C light, while Razer is quick to point out that the Zephyr “is not a N95 mask/respirator” despite claiming that it filters 99 per cent of bacteria from the air.
Yet masks work by surrounding the mouth and nose with a filter – meaning that the Zone’s open design won’t stop an infected person spreading COVID.
One expert told Slate it was “irresponsible” to wear something that would actually accelerate exhaled COVID particles, speeding their spread into the surrounding air.
Others weren’t as concerned, noting the unit’s low-powered fan and the fact that it is most likely to be worn outside where the risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus is lower.
Just how effective the device is, or isn’t, as a mask replacement won’t be known until it’s released later this year – but its potential value for urban asthma sufferers could rapidly change it from a design oddity into a lifesaver.