Mask Up

FaceBit turns any mask into a real-time body monitor

And somehow it manages to recharge via your breathing. Genius.

Female doctor in protective face mask checking up faceless male patient throat. Examing glands at cl...
Natalia Gdovskaia/Moment/Getty Images

Researchers at Northwestern University have created a face mask that monitors your vitals, a wearable combination we’d somehow never considered. Called the FaceBit (lol), the gadget is really just a computer the size of a quarter that attaches to any face mask, including cloth, N95, and surgical masks.

The device can measure the wearer’s respiration rate, heart rate, and mask wear time, all of which can be communicated in real time to a smartphone app. Its creators believe they can eventually train FaceBit to complete mask-fitting tests, too.

Perhaps most impressive: FaceBit’s minuscule battery can actually recharge using the force, motion, and heat of the wearer’s breath. It does have wall-charging capabilities, too — but this way you don’t need to plug it in all that often.

“We wanted to design an intelligent face mask for health care professionals that does not need to be inconveniently plugged in during the middle of a shift,” says development lead Josiah Hester. “You can wear the mask for a week or two without having to charge or replace the battery.”

Real-time alerts — FaceBit’s main functionality is tracking vitals. The state-of-the-art sensor can somehow understand the force of your blood as it travels up a major artery to your face. Don’t ask us how, but damn that is impressive.

Northwestern University

Healthcare workers are FaceBit’s target audience. Its creators imagine nurses and doctors setting up alerts to take breaks or go for a walk — when the mask detects rapid breathing, for example.

A mask-fitting dream — Even the best face masks, when worn out of the box, are liable to airflow leakage. They need to be fitted to really keep harmful particles out. This fitting process is standard in most hospital settings, but it’s time-consuming and imperfect.

FaceBit can’t replace this kind of fitting session yet, though its creators do hope to manage that in the future. Already, though, the device can help wearers understand when their mask isn’t fitting as well as it once did. This alert could be the difference between being partially protected and being fully protected.

Now the FaceBit team is opening up its research for the outside world to scrutinize. The entire project is open-source; now FaceBit can be used as a foundation for other projects.

Most of the smart mask innovations to come out of the pandemic have focused on aesthetics over safety. FaceBit’s team is turning that around to aim at health once again.