AO Air reinvents and restyles respiratory protection
With 9 out of 10 people on the planet now breathing polluted air, it seems nobody is safe from air pollution. Ao Air is facing this global health crisis
DesignWanted interviewed Dan Bowden, CEO, and co-founder of Ao Air to learn the story and the vision of the company behind one of the world’s most innovative pollution masks.
The fact that we are living in a polluted planet is not new. Some say it’s the time to suffer the consequences of our foolish, past actions and some say its time to act wisely against the present and future consequences.
What is the story of Ao Air?
“The three co-founders all had differing issues with air quality. I was living in London and wanted to cycle into work but the air quality was so poor that it made for an unpleasant experience.
Our CTO, Jerry Mauger, was wearing masks and respirators on a daily basis and was frustrated by the ineffectiveness and problems that users encounter. In a recent study, 84% of users experience an issue with wearing a mask for prolonged periods.
The problems are inherent in the design of a mask, from rebreathing exhaled air to inability to work with facial hair, glasses fogging up and worst of all, many simply didn’t perform.
At the same time, Ilya Vensky, our CMO was living in China where his wife was pregnant and was encountering complications attributed to air pollution when they returned to New Zealand the problems abated.
Together we looked at the existing options on the market and were shocked. Facemasks and respirators are effectively repurposed 1960s technology. We knew we had to do the right thing. And we did. We created a modern hi-tech solution that clean air available to everybody, everywhere.
But our mission was deeper. Ao Air ultimate dream is a world with clean, pure air for everyone. That’s a world where city dwellers have no need for products like ours.”
So you see, one could say that the goal of our consumer business, is to go out of business. Of course, we’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.
We can have that mindset, because there will always be people working in polluted environments, such as construction sites or manufacturing facilities where there’s a need for a better solution. The Atmos can be used in both commercial and consumer environments. And that is what Aō Air and “Better air for life” is all about.”
[ Read also 5 unique projects using recycled face mask ]
Why do people need a product like Ao Air Atmos?
“We are really looking at how we can make the greatest positive impact. Our greater purpose is to help eliminate air pollution. We looked at a number of factors when considering where to start: where is the human need greatest? Where is there awareness greatest? Which markets can we effectively enter and create the platform for wider change?
This was a big challenge as airborne threats affect everyone, from asthma and COPD sufferers to firefighters in Australia to the current coronavirus outbreak and many more.”
Air pollution alone kills 7 million per year, which is more than smoking. When we looked through the lens of where we could make the greatest positive impact immediately in the next few years, we decided to focus on people first. Specifically, the Korean consumer. It is an influential and leverageable market, allowing us to create a platform upon which we can expand the business to help more people at risk.
Over time that means we can develop into less aware markets and use the platform to address markets with greater regulatory or legal challenges such as factory workers or healthcare settings.”
How does AO Air Atmos mask work?
“It’s important to understand how a normal mask or respirator works. You need two things: 1) a filter to clean the air and 2) a tight seal around the mouth and nose. Creating filtration to clean the air is relatively easy. But for us, we needed a very specific filtration media which required designing from the molecular level.
The real challenge is trying to keep a tight and proper seal around your mouth and nose. Facial hair, facial shape, sweating, smiling taking it off and putting it on again are just some of the things that can result in an imperfect seal. Any of these human factors means compromised protection.
Our patented PositivAir™ technology is different. The key is we create a positive air pressure environment of clean air in front of the mouth and nose. In doing so the positive air pressure means the bad unfiltered air cannot enter into the breathing area and, as a result, we do not require a tight seal around the mouth and nose. We create this environment behind a protective, clear shield.”
How is AO Air Atmos mask better than other filtering face masks?
“It really comes down to the fact we do not need a seal to protect. By virtue of this, we have a continuous flow of clean air so the user can breathe easily. There is no rebreathing the air they just exhaled, no discomfort from the seal, you can have facial hair, your make up won’t smudge and your entire face is visible.
But the key difference is performance. Remembering you need only two things for a mask or respirator to work, a filter and seal. We don’t rely on the most flawed element – the seal. As a result, the independent testing by the Auckland University of Technology has confirmed we are up to 50 times better than the leading masks on the market today.”
How is the AO Air Atmos mask built?
“The Atmos is designed from the molecular level up. We had to design our own filtration system using nanotechnology, and with this in place, we can then start to create a system to protect. We are currently reliant on using thermoplastics but are looking forward to the transition to biopolymers.
The current weight is in the order of 270gms, however, it really doesn’t feel that weight due to the nature of how the face wear is designed to fit on the body by clasping on the neck rather than hanging off the ears, nose or grabbing at the back of the head like a traditional mask or respirator.”
AO Air Atmos mask controls user breathing data. How do these features contribute to the functionality of the product and what advantages do they bring to the product and experience?
“This ability to collect breathing data was a natural byproduct of our desire to be constantly measuring and adapting the performance of the Atmos to ensure optimal protection. We have a need to monitor the air pressure inside the face wear to confirm that the system is working properly. We quickly realized that this data could be used for other insights such as providing unique and actionable digital health data.
We are excited by the potential in future generations of the face wear for everything from Vo2 max, to guided meditation, diagnostics and we could also expand on this personal sensor suite over time. Although we should state that while we can access this respiratory data the aforementioned functionality will not be in Generation 1 of the app.
The current app also contains a live street by street air pollution map, so if you can monitor when you need to seek protection.
We are most excited about the potential to connect those at risk and create a data-driven solution. In future iterations we plan to include a pollution sensor so when people are enjoying their cities without fear of air pollution, they are also contributing to a larger network which can identify sources of pollution and create data which quantify impacts such as planting trees.
We believe that by engaging and empowering people, real, systemic change will start to occur.”
What are the most significant design aspects of Atmos?
“The form is largely a result of the function. First and foremost, our goal is to provide protection and invariably that means a somewhat futuristic design. In terms of design, we have sought to create a white canvas for designers (fashion and otherwise) to iterate upon.”
What are the challenges or goals for AO in the near future?
“The company is small but with a big vision. So our greatest challenge in the short term is getting the right resources to execute on this goal. That means partnering and working with people who share in our wider vision of a better world.
With the resources in place, we can start the quick process of miniaturization and making the face wear smarter and sleeker.
We will continue to run a collaboration model working with more designers. This will be important as the face is the most valuable real estate on the human body. We’re looking forward to seeing how fellow designers can reimagine the future with us, a future of better air for all.”