On Thursday, Dyson unveiled its newest, probably-way-too-expensive gadget: a portable, wearable air purifier that you can parade around via your face:
A filter, located in the ear cups of the headphones, cleans incoming air, which is then directed into your mouth and nose when you inhale—all without touching your face. (The headphones also work as actual Bluetooth headphones that can play music.) It looks like one third of a Power Ranger helmet, or maybe a NASA helmet that would instantly get you killed in space.
Dyson isn’t advertising the Zone as a mitigation tool for the pandemic; rather, it’s supposed to deal with garden variety air pollution. But in the age of COVID-19, when you say “air filtration,” it’s a completely reasonable response to instantly think about SARS-CoV-2. So I wondered: How well would this thing work during an ongoing pandemic?
The initial iteration misses one key feature: It doesn’t work as a mask: “The headset doesn’t cover your mouth, so it can’t suppress the particles in your breath from spreading to others,” wrote Mike Epstein in Popular Science. A spokesperson at Dyson told me that “the visor acts as a physical barrier against forward projection.” But it seems like this would, at best, catch some blobs of spit—we know that even full face shields aren’t sufficient protection if you’re in a public place and at risk of infecting others.
Dyson has told reporters that it will include a face covering with the final product, which will be available in fall 2022, though it doesn’t seem anyone has been able to test this component. (Update April 7: a spokesperson clarified that at least some people outside of Dyson were able to test it, as you can see in this TikTok.) The addition also seems to run a little counter to the product’s current advertising: “unlike face masks, it delivers a plume of fresh air without touching your face,” reads a quote from Jake Dyson, chief engineer, on the Dyson Zone website.
And while that filtered air could be helpful for the wearer, coronavirus-wise, the fact that this is an air purification device on its own doesn’t do much to help those who might be at risk of your germs. (The spokesperson emphasized that “our engineers adapted [the design] during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure virus capture.”) Remember, the idea of wearing a high-protection mask like an N95 or KF94 is that you get air filtration for the air you breathe in, and the air you exhale gets filtered too.
I checked with a few COVID experts to get their take on the Zone. They were mixed on whether wearing the Zone sans mask would be actively worse than going barefaced. “The air flow probably makes exhaled respiratory particles travel farther and faster, when first released, than they would otherwise,” said Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne disease transmission at Virginia Tech (she and others I spoke to haven’t tried the device, as it has yet to be released to the general public). In other words, it’s possible that the device would fling around whatever is coming out of your lungs—bad news if you’re infected with SARS-CoV-2. “I think it’s irresponsible to wear something like this during a global pandemic of a respiratory virus,” said Marr. The exception might be if everyone is wearing one and filtering their own air.
But another expert in airborne disease transmission, Edward Nardell at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, thought that the Zone probably wouldn’t project much more of a stream of air than normal exhalation would. “It really shouldn’t have much impact on other people,” he said, noting that the motor probably isn’t very powerful. The Dyson spokesperson agreed: “The air in the visor travels at a low velocity, so as not to be intrusive to others around you—it is not a powerful jet of air,” adding, “the air expelled will not contain any higher concentrations of germs than exhalation without the product.” (Well, good!)
Where the Zone is actually used might make all the difference. Dyson seems to think it’ll get the most use outside, where you’re exposed to environmental air pollutants—and where risk of spreading COVID-19 is very, very low. As KC Coffey, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health and medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told me, “We should remember that the greatest risk of acquiring COVID-19 is at home from family.”
The Dyson Zone is slated for release in fall 2022, at which time its utility—or lack thereof—will become clearer. In the meantime, an N95 should serve you just fine. You can get a box of them for $20.
Update, April 7: A spokesperson from Dyson reached out with a link to a TikTok showing the mask addition to the device, and to emphasize that the device does filter viruses. We have updated the piece.