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Captioned Masks?

A plushy toy tiger wearing a paper mask with words saying "Wearable captions?"

I wrote an article about challenges that many deaf and hard of hearing people (including myself) experience when communicating with people who wear regular masks. Clear masks are mentioned in the article.

Even if everyone wears a clear mask, lipreading still gives only about 30% of visual information and the rest is a lot of guesswork. So clear masks can be complementary to communication in sign language, written text, and captions, but not serve as replacements. There may be situations when it’s not possible to use a live interpreter or to exchange written notes. You would need to practice social distancing.

So what are other possible suggestions?

Before continuing, I would like to emphasize that I’m not an engineer and that my following suggestions may not be practical or suitable for certain situations. I’m just sharing my thoughts.

There’s a possibility to have someone’s voice transcribed into text via an app on a smartphone. Many companies – such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others – offer machine generated speech to text solutions. Their apps are not 100% accurate but they are good for informal personal communication. I and many other deaf and hard of hearing people have been using those apps quite a lot lately – regardless of whether people wear masks or not.

However, speech quality may be degraded through a mask and may cause more accuracy issues in speech to text apps.

The second possibility would be a person wearing a microphone inside their mask that would transmit their speech via Bluetooth to a deaf person’s speech to text app or to their own phone (in a a see through neck pouch, for example) displaying captions for a deaf person to read.

As far as I know there are no small wireless microphones that could fit into a mask as a small chip. And captions may be hard to read on someone else’s phone in a neck pouch from afar. A tablet may be too heavy to wear around the neck.

The third possibility would be a thin and flexible display that shows wearable captions on a piece of washable and reusable cloth. It could be a vest or a t-shirt or a mask.

I saw an example of the LED Matrix Face Mask that I thought would be a great idea for a captioned mask.  

However, I wonder if captions would be easy to read on the LED matrix mask? How large should captions be? Would a LED matrix fabric be able to show smaller captions?

Here’s a comparison of the technologies (LED and e-ink displays) for wearable e-textile displays.

Also, here are some examples of various thin cloth displays using different technologies that could show clearer captions:

  • E-ink display: An example in an article with several videos showing e-ink on a cloth.
  • OLED display: An example of a wearable display that is lightweight, thin, and flexible.
  • Graphene-based display: An example of a wearable display “without the need for electrodes, wires of additional materials.” The article states: “At just one atom thick, graphene is the thinnest substance capable of conducting electricity. It is very flexible and is one of the strongest known materials.”

Can those wearable displays be wireless? How can captioned displays and/or microphone be powered? Would a small microphone inside a cloth mask make speech clearer?

I also saw another clear mask – Breaze by Minfu – check Facebook video and their indiegogo page. Based on those links, it looks like that the mask hasn’t been released to the market.

However, the Breaze mask made me think about other possibilities. Since it’s made of hard plastic, I wonder if it will be easier to also incorporate a small internal microphone and an option for a captioned display?

For the captioned option, I was thinking of adding a small camera on the bottom of a clear mask that would project hologram captions. Like the example in the Star Wars movie video clip where Princess Leia is projected in a holographic message played by R2-D2.

The hologram captions could be easily resized and customized based on how far you are from a mask wearer.

I know that my suggestions may sound too futuristic and impractical at this moment. But I think it would be really cool to communicate with a person wearing a light plastic mask with a clear window that enables you to lipread them and with a camera to project hologram captions if needed.

Do you want to discuss possibilities of captioned masks? Let me know!

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