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The face mask has become a ubiquitous symbol of the coronavirus, widely accepted (though increasingly politicized) as a necessary precautionary measure – and sometimes even a style signifier – in our new reality. Does this mean we’ll be turning to masks more in the future? Ryan Cook believes so. The designer and his team at LuxMea Studio, with offices in Boston and Toronto, are using 3D printing and AI to create the Nuo 3D Mask, a “customized breathing mask that matches any face profile individually like a fingerprint. All that is needed for input to create the Nuo 3D Mask is a basic set of measurements that mark the distance between your eyes, nose, and chin. No photos, face scans, or any other personal data is required.” 

The mask was designed to filter out air pollution, which kills some seven million people per year. “New technology has allowed us to speculate on what the world might look like in the future with things like climate change presenting an existential threat to humanity,” says Cook. “Masks could be the new normal if nothing is done to address the systemic issues that lead to pandemics and pollution in the first place,” Cook says.  

We interviewed Cook to find out more about the crowd-funded design.

The Nuo 3D Mask project was not driven by the pandemic. It began two years back when you started working with Autodesk, correct?

Ryan Cook

Two years ago, we started our residency program at Autodesk to explore 3D printed building envelopes through their generative design software. This research evolved into developing procedural algorithms that allow for customization for a variety of projects at various scales. Basically, the generative design process involves the creation of a range of outputs based on a specific set of modifiable variables. We use generative design as a tool to fine-tune and optimize our products on a mass scale and an affordable price.

For the Nuo 3D Mask, each design that is created is 100 per cent unique and streamlined for printing with our 3D printing manufacturer. It took us two years to find ways to automate these kinds of processes. And the Nuo 3D Mask is our first PPCP (Personalized Profile & Customized Products) release. We are also working on personalized eyeglasses, shoes and potentially another series of masks for the near future.

Internally, we have also designed masks in the past two years. We created new modelling techniques to explore symmetrical styles of geometry that could be worn as masks, but their performance was purely through the aesthetics of mass customization and changing variables to result in different shapes, colours, and patterns. These masks are a bit different than our latest Nuo 3D Mask, but the customization aspect has still carried over. The main differences are apparent in the functionality and technical aspects of the design.

Can you tell me about the performance of the mask? Is it made of polyester or some other plastic? Does it filter out air pollution only? Can it be modified to also filter out pathogens? What kinds of tests have you conducted?

The performance of the Nuo 3D Mask is focused on the effects of air pollution. The mask itself is made of polyamide, which we decided to go with because of its high-grade performance and quality. Our mask consists of two parts. The first part is a reusable 3D printed shell, and the second part is a replaceable filter. The filter follows the N95 standard, and we have passed both quantitative and qualitative fit tests at a professional institution.

If the mask wasn’t originally designed to filter out the virus, is there now an effort underway to make it so?

The Nuo 3D Mask is designed to only filter out pollutants. However, internally we have looked at designing a separate version for those in healthcare settings. But this is completely separate from the Nuo 3D Mask, which is designed for use in public settings.

I appreciate the idea that the mask is custom-created, with 3D printing and AI, to properly fit a user’s face. What kinds of obstacles (such as designing new software) did you have to go through to that kind of user-specific result?

This has been the most challenging part of the design process, because it requires that each mask change according to the user’s face. No mask is the same. The logistics of this were daunting at first, but it became much easier once we figured out ways to optimize the key points of differences between faces – from eyes to cheekbones, nose, and chin, etc. Artificial intelligence allows us to do this without relying on facial scan data directly taken from our mask users. Originally we did rely on face scans for early prototyping. But now all we require is a few basic measurements and the AI does the rest of the work to adjust and massage the mask geometry to create an individualized fit.

The project seems to have a future-forward, speculative aspect to it. What are the practical intentions, more or less?

In the future, we envision a bespoke revolution where products can be fully customized to the point where things can become an extension of yourself through both form and function. Technology, AI, and digital fabrication methods like 3D printing can get us to this future because they offer a unique opportunity for user personalization at an affordable price. This personalization applies to most of the work we do at LuxMea.

We are also working on bespoke eyeglasses, which are tailored to fit individual face profiles, as well as 3D printed shoes that respond to individualized foot pressure. Our mask is the most future-forward project we have made. As we have been developing the project, it has allowed us to speculate on what the world might look like in a future affected by climate change. The World Health Organization estimates that millions of lives are lost every year because of air pollution, and just recently studies have shown that air pollution has drastically reduced since the start of the pandemic. It is believed that government-enforced responses to the pandemic could be one of the primary causes of this reduction.

But what happens if we all go back to the way things were before the pandemic? What happens if we continue to ruin the environment rather than transition to greener industries and renewable energy sources? It is important to ask ourselves these questions, especially now during this wake-up call. If nothing is done on a systemic level to address air pollution, we might have to rely more on technical solutions like masks to make the future a little brighter.

A Customizable Face Mask For the Future

Created with Autodesk’s generative design software, the Nuo 3D Mask by LuxMea Studio is shaped to match the wearer’s face.

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