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Researchers are working on a face mask that lights up when it detects coronavirus

Published May 17th, 2020 9:32AM EDT
Face mask
Image: Elaine Thompson/AP/Shutterstock
  • One of the keys to keeping the spread of coronavirus under control as states and cities move to reopen gradually in the coming days will be whether their populations largely embrace the wearing of face masks when they venture out into public.
  • Along those lines, one group of researchers is testing whether they can develop a face mask that does more than simply cover your face — it would actually alert you to the presence of coronavirus.
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With the coronavirus crisis set to enter a new chapter, as states and locales around the US begin a gradual process of opening back up again while trying to strike a balance between that and living with the COVID-19 virus, face masks are being regarded as a key piece of what comes next.

If you live in some of the states and areas of the country where people are gradually being allowed to go back out into public again — and assuming you actually want to — you will increasingly see signs posted by businesses that mandate face masks and social distancing if you come inside. In fact, a group of some 100 medical professionals that includes Nobel prize winners has signed on to an open letter urging the mandating of face masks for everyone who goes out in public or to their job. Uber drivers and employees now have to wear face masks, and Apple has been working to make it easier to use iOS and Face ID while wearing a face mask. Meanwhile, there’s a new kind of face mask in the works that’s vastly different than the kind most people are wearing right now — and might even have the potential to save your life.

Researchers affiliated with MIT and Harvard are reportedly working on a face mask that will not only protect other people from your germs, in the event that you have coronavirus but don’t realize it. This mask would also have sensors and an ability to light up when it detects the presence of coronavirus, alerting you to the danger you pose to yourself and to other people.

According to Business Insider, bioengineers at both institutions have been working for the last six years on sensors that can detect other viruses (Ebola and Zika). What they’re doing now is adapting all that research and those sensors to detect the presence of coronavirus whenever the wearer of the mask breathes, sneezes, or coughs into it.

That work is proceeding down two tracks at the moment — testing a mask with a sensor inside it and testing the use of sensors that can be attached to over-the-counter masks. Early testing has shown promise, and the team is looking at potentially demonstrating how this all works in a matter of weeks.

“Once we’re in that stage, then it would be a matter (of) setting up trials with individuals expected to be infected to see if it would work in a real-world setting,” MIT researcher Jim Collins told BI.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.