This Weird Air-Filtering Face Mask Picked the Worst Possible Time

Woman wearing AirPop Active+ Halo Smart Mask in front of a river.

My husband says it is impossible for me to look cool in this mask. Oh well.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

In the last 16 months, masks have become a part of our daily lives. So, of course, companies have tried to innovate on them by adding smart features. Razers Project Hazel, for instance, looks like a prop straight out ofCyberpunk 2077 with its RGB lights, replaceable N95 masks, and voice amplification features. Will.i.ams also making a stupid face mask and has the gall to charge $299. Theres also the MaskFone, which as the name implies, features built-in Bluetooth so you can take calls.

Then theres the AirPop Active+ Halo Smart Mask, which out of all of these weirdly executed options seemed like the one that might actually be a useful blend of smarts and design. I admit I was a little skeptical when it made the rounds at CES 2021. Designed for activity, the mask is supposedly effective at filtering particulates while also being highly breathable. It also has a sensor that can measure air quality. After a few weeks of wearing one, however, Im not convinced anyone needs a smart masklet alone one that costs an arm and a leg for something everyone should have for free.

A Breathable Design That Falls Short for Exercise

The AirPop website uses a lot of fancy words to describe the Active+ Halos design. Its shape is supposedly engineered for ideal airflow and creates a canopy of clean air. What you really need to know is that it has a flexible, moisture-wicking outer shell thats resistant to humidity, abrasions, and water. On the inside, there are two pegs on each side where you can place one of AirPops proprietary filters. And on the front left, you can see the circular Halo sensor. (Yes, it lights up.)

The filter itself has a neat design. Around the edge, theres a seal made from a medical-grade membrane. Theres even a flap that you fold up at the nose for a more secure and comfortable fit. I appreciated the adjustable ear loops, and while I did sometimes end up with foggy eyeglasses, it wasnt as bad as with some other masks Ive tried. And for all the marketing jargon, I ended up liking the canopy between my mouth and the filterif only because it meant I could wear lipstick or gloss without it smearing all over my face.

Profile view of woman wearing AirPop Active+ Halo Smart Mask

You can see the shape leaves space between the mask and your mouth/nose.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

But was it breathable? Yes, but only for a short walk at a moderate pace or a jaunt to a store. It wasnt all that useful for more rigorous exercise. I tried using it for two runs and each time I lasted only about 10 minutes before I ripped this thing off my face. Likewise, on a walk, my husband asked if I was doing my best Darth Vader impression based on how heavily I was breathing. He then reminded me I was torturing myself for no reason, as Im fully vaccinated and can walk outdoors mask-free. On another brisk walk, I got a notification that the inside of the mask had reached peak humidity, and was recommended to cool off Halo by quickly shaking [my] mask.

You might have a different experience if youre not fazed by running with a mask. That said, I lasted a whole five minutes longer with the Active+ Halo than with the UA Sportsmask. It was more comfortable too. So while I didnt find it up to snuff for workouts, its pretty good for running errands. The problem is this is a $150 smart mask. Its got to be better than pretty good to be worth it.

Air Quality Monitoring Doesnt Make Up for Glitchy App

Companion apps can make or break a gadget. For the Active+ Halo, its the latter.

Setting the mask up isnt hard. You set up an account, pair the device, and pick which color you want the Halo to light up. After that, you scan the QR code that comes with your filter. Each one is rated for 40 hours of use, so scanning lets you keep track of how many hours are left. Forty hours is decent if youre wearing a mask on and off throughout the day. Its not as impressive if youre someone who has to wear one for several hours at a time.

The apps UX is clunky. There are two tabsone for your stats and another for activity tracking. On the stats page, youre supposed to see the air quality index of your area, as well as metrics like how many breaths you took, how many pollutants were filtered, and how long youve worn the mask. If you swipe down, you can access the Mask Status menu, which shows you how many hours your filter has left and a button to sync data. Whenever I hit the button, however, the app screen went blank and Id have to navigate to a different menu. Its a weird quirk that doesnt impact syncs, but it doesnt make for a friendly user experience.

A collage of AirPop app screenshots

I do not have a respiratory rate of 10 breaths per minute. The middle screenshot shows how the app froze when trying to select my neighborhood. The last screenshot is what it *should* look like when it actually works.
Screenshot: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

As for air quality, the app pulled my Air Quality Index from an area in New York City thats about 10 miles away. Thats not a big deal, but nevertheless, I tried to see if it was possible to switch it to a closer area. In my attempt, I somehow broke the feature. For nearly two weeks, that screen was either stuck on the buffering symbol or froze. Restarting the app didnt help, and typing cities or zip codes into the search bar returned zero results. On a hunch, I recorded another live GPS walk and that seemed to fix the problem. I even got missing metrics for the days it was borked. These minor bugs arent always dealbreakers, but generally, its a sign youre dealing with a shoddy app.

Unfortunately, the mask doesnt always accurately count my breaths. I recorded two walks with the app and it said my breathing rate was 10 breaths per minute. I know from tracking my sleep with the Oura Ring, Whoop, and other devices that my respiratory rate is somewhere between 16-19 breaths per minute at rest. On a third walk, it recorded a much more reasonable 20-22 breaths per minute. I also checked by manually counting my breaths between syncs. Sometimes the count was pretty spot on, other times it was way off. All this told me was that itd be hard to trust that the reported metrics were consistently reliable.

At the very least, I thought itd be handy at tracking my filters lifespan. Nope, the results here were mixed, too. For two weeks, the app said I had 39 hours left on my filter. This was even though Id logged more than three hours of activity elsewhere in the app, and had synced successfully multiple times. Randomly, it updated the count to a more accurate 36.5 hours but thats still slightly off by my calculations.

A view of the AirPop Active+ Halo's proprietary filter

Each filter is rated for 40 hours. You pop it in based on the two side pegs. Theres also silicone to create a seal around your face.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

To clarify, its not that I think this mask doesnt work. AirPop says it has third-party validation testing and certifications for bacterial filtration, particle filtration, EU Community barrier mask guidelines, and skin-friendly standards. The results can be directly downloaded from the website, and theres also an extensive FAQ section explaining what they mean. Thats actually decent for a wellness gadget. Most dont even bother. (That said, I cant actually test if I was breathing cleaner air while wearing this mask.)

Even if the Active+ Halo was the most accurate air quality-measuring mask on the planet, CDC-authorized N95 and K95 masks arent expensive. Some sell for less than a dollar each. The real reason youd get the Active+ Halo mask over a cheaper, more widely available one, is to get a better understanding of your neighborhoods air quality. For a long time, I had no idea what that was thanks to a glitchy app and inconsistent metrics. Thats not a good look for a $150 mask thats already not that great for sports.

Do We Even Need Smart Masks Post-Pandemic?

Hot vax summer is here, and with it raises the question of whether smart masks are relevant anymoreif they ever were. I live in New York, and the state announced on June 15 that most covid-19 restrictions have been lifted immediately because 70% of adults have received at least one shot. At the same time, I still see people in my neighborhood masking up when grocery shopping or ducking into the local Starbucks. And even if the state is comfortable adopting the honor system for businesses, youre still supposed to wear masks on public transit. Likewise, my apartment building has said masks are still required when interacting with building staff.

Side view of Halo sensor and the smart mask.

While this mask is comfortable, the price point is definitely not.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Some experts have floated the idea that masks might be a semi-permanent thing going forward. In Asia, masks are a common sight during flu season and culturally, its viewed as inconsiderate to forgo one if you know youre coming down with something. When I lived in Tokyo, it was second nature to grab one to leave my apartment whenever I had the sniffles. Who knows? This could also be a permanent fixture going forward in American culture. And even when this pandemic is eventually declared over in the U.S., that may not be the case abroad for quite some time.

So yes, right now masks are here to stayeven if its just for the short or medium-term. Hell, air pollution is a serious health risk (and it makes covid-19 more dangerous, too). Itll still be a serious problem once the pandemicis a distant memory. A mask that monitors air pollution is a worthwhile idea from an environmental perspective. But while I genuinely like the overall design and fit of the AirPop Active+ Halo Smart Mask, I cant in good conscience recommend people pay out the nose for a buggy app and so-so metrics when all you really need is a weather app and a box of K95 masks. After all, no one should have to pay a premium for cleaner air.

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