Since COVID struck in late 2019, countless companies ranging from Gap to Nike to Apple began designing and producing masks and other PPE. Most of them were simple, low-tech accessories—many of which were produced only for their own employees to go back to work.
By early 2021, we’d all seen so many mask designs that our eyes glazed over. And that’s when the PC gaming company Razer—known for producing high-end mice, keyboards, video game controllers, and laptops—released a mask concept that no one saw coming.
Called Project Hazel, it was basically a maximalist, eye-melting gaming PC for your face: a battery powered mask with customizable, rainbow LED lights and a microphone/speaker system to amplify your voice for others to hear. But its most tantalizing promise was the UX of easier breathing. It used fans to suck air in and out through its N95-grade filters, so that you could inhale more naturally.
After the concept debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2021, it went viral across tech and gaming sites. In turn, Razer green-lit the product for production. There was just one problem: Hazel was basically just a drawing rather than a proven, working prototype. Wait, there were two problems: Razer had built countless ergonomic mice before, but never something to wrap around your nose and mouth—and never something intended to protect you from microbes. And actually make it three problems: Razer knew that, with the shifting tides of the global pandemic, for this product to be relevant, it would have to ship in less than a year.
“It was ‘panic stations!’ to [the design team], and mechanical engineers were freaking out a bit,” says Charlie Bolton, head of industrial design at Razer. “Usually a product takes about a year to make. We really had to get everybody involved to get this mask out.”
Ultimately, Razer shipped the renamed Zephyr mask in October of this year for $100. It has sold more than 10,000 units to date, and has been constrained only by the inventory it can feasibly produce during COVID. (The company declined to share how many people have signed up to be notified about future Zephyr releases.) But the final product is notably different in all sorts of ways from the concept, because the process of designing and engineering a product introduces far more constraints than sketching up an idea.
“We build wearables: glasses and headphones…but a mask, there’s a lot more [to deal with],” says Bolton. “Every face is different. It had to fit females with smaller faces and males with larger faces. We had all those restrictions…With the original concept, we didn’t have to consider all those restrictions. We just had to make sure it looked good.”
Razer used simulations of face morphologies through development to ensure the mask’s core geometry could work for most people. This ultimately led to the first big compromise of the design: The original seal pressed high against your cheeks, offering a relatively spacious design for breathing, reminiscent of old fashioned gas masks. The new seal was much smaller, wrapping around your nose and mouth almost like a jock strap on your face—a bit snugger than the average mask. Razer realized the best option wasn’t to reinvent the wheel, but to adopt the universal silicon seal design that you can see in other N95 products.
The original concept also suggested that the mask would loop over your ears. This deep into the pandemic, we know that ear loops can be uncomfortable on even a feather-light mask. Meanwhile, Zephyr would be filled with motors and batteries.
Razer had been experimenting with 3D prints, finalizing these forms before building the tooling to take them into mass production. The problem with these printed mock ups? “They don’t reflect the weight,” says Bolton. When the team had full prototypes to try out, they passed them around the office for feedback, and learned that the weight of the mask was just too great for anchoring on your ears. (The final mask weighs in at 206 grams on my scale, or nearly half a pound. A KN95 weighs all of 6g, or about the weight of a nickel.)
“That was actually one of the easier things to change,” Bolton says, because the team developed a backup plan: A dual-strap system that wrapped all the way around the back of your head. Ditching the promised voice amplification feature helped, too. The more challenging change that Razer had to make was around the mask’s most promising feature: Its breathing and filtration system.
As proposed, the mask was completely sealed, save for two fans (each fit with a small disc filter). One fan was an air intake. The other was an air outtake.
“When we got the mask [prototype], there was concern about air flow…you felt a little [trapped] in the bubble. That was almost a show stopper,” says Bolton. “The main thing when you’re wearing a mask is to feel comfortable, and not claustrophobic.”
Even after optimizing the fan size within the constraints of the casing, and allowing the user to pick one of three fan speeds, the two-port design just didn’t work. So the team reworked it. They turned both fans into intake fans, which increased the amount of air coming into the mask (and you can feel a breeze around your nose when they’re cranked all the way up, which does help offset the snug fit of the mask’s seal). They also punched a hole in the mask near your mouth (adding another filter to this spot), creating another point for exhalation and inhalation, albeit with no fan assistance.
As for how you add those little filters—which are about the size of a small coin—the team had originally attempted a screw mechanism for removing the fans and mouthpiece. When this added too much thickness to the product, they opted for magnets instead. You just pull the sections off the mask, add a filter, and snap them back on. While it can be hard to feel like you’ve lined those filters up perfectly, Razer points out that the system has been independently certified with a Bacterial Filtration Efficiency of over 99%, like an N95. Even still, the Zephyr sits inside this weird space of not-quite-regulated personal protective equipment. Much like any old cloth mask you buy, it’s not a certified N95 mask, and Razer doesn’t recommend it for medical use. (Razer’s own fine print insists it’s not even to be considered PPE.)
The wild west of PPE aside, the Zephyr raises larger questions about the future norms of masking during an ongoing pandemic.
When Project Hazel debuted last winter, the world was desperate. With no vaccines available, society had no way of knowing who could be infected and spreading COVID at any given moment. For lack of a better option, many of us Zoomed holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas in the name of public health. Hazel was a beacon in the darkness. Yet by the time I received a review unit in the mail, just a few weeks ago, the world had changed. We have booster shots, rapid home tests, and all sorts of other (admittedly imperfect) COVID mitigation strategies.
COVID is still running rampant, but as I looked at the shiny box with these overt LEDs, I wondered who was that past me who felt so excited about this vibrant celebration of Hazmat aesthetics? Donning the mask for the first time, I watched as it automatically cycled through a rainbow gradient of color on my face—there purely as a fashion statement. I imagined wearing this on the train or to the grocery store, garnering strange looks from every side of the political and scientific spectrum. Just how afraid is this guy, they’d wonder, and why is he…glowing?
The fans whir quite loudly, and speaking over them would be a challenge at top speed. But I’ll admit, the breeze feels nice. I just wish the seal around my nose and mouth radiated out farther, as in the original design, so that I could feel the air on my cheeks. And I wonder how it would feel on a hot day—better than a sweaty mask, or not? Because the body is hard plastic, and that material won’t breathe. As for those LEDs, I hop into the Zephyr app and quickly deactivate them. There’s something to say for this easy user customization. If I wanted, I guess I could have chosen to leave them on and match the color to my shirt.
Ultimately, I feel like the Zephyr tapped into a COVID fantasy that was perfect for the internet with a nation under lockdown, but doesn’t quite translate to the real world—or at least it doesn’t seem to right now, during this particular chapter of the pandemic where Omicron is scary but seemingly mutable by boosters, and masks can’t protect us from our ever-growing need to socialize in-person with friends and family. But with a more deadly variant? I could change my tune.
And so I ask Bolton, does he believe that people, who were so excited about Zephyr at the start of the year, still actually want to wear this? He counters, fairly, that high-end masks, filled with technology and fashionably expressive, are a totally new category—and not just for Razer, but the world at large.
“It’s very much in that early phase of, no one knows where the market will go. I think it’s still relevant,” says Bolton. “Does it make people very self-conscious that they’re wearing this mask on their face? Is it too much? I think people get used to it. I remember first wearing the cloth mask [self-consciously], now I’m totally fine with it. I quite like wearing it in certain situations. I think, potentially, that’s a way smart masks will become more mainstream in a way. But again who knows. This product is like a one-off.”