Put on a brave face
The Totobobo is the world’s first customisable respiratory mask. By Cheah Ui-HoonBusiness Times- May 2, 2009
The swine flu that’s sweeping North America and Europe might have you rifling through your cupboards for the face masks you bought six years ago. While most of us simply chucked them into some cabinet or drawer after the Sars outbreak, one man was motivated by the fact that A: The N95 plastic masks are uncomfortable, and B: children could only wear surgical masks and these didn’t filter out airborne viruses.
Totobobo is made with a special blended plastic which is soft enough to comply comfortably to the contours of the face, but not too soft that it touches the mouth.
Product designer Francis Chu put on his thinking cap, after encountering these problems in 2003. ‘As a father of two young children, I was really concerned about this. The challenge that presented itself was clear – to come up with a mask that would fit not just adults but children, and at the same time feel comfortable,’ he explains.
Being a product designer, he was therefore sensitive to user issues and ergonomic requirements. ‘Although I don’t have medical training, I have been involved in designing for disabled children,’ he says. ‘I studied the principle for respiratory protection in different fields, including the medical. I also asked advice from my friends working in the hospitals,’ he adds.
To fund this project, Mr Chu sold his car, trading it in for a bicycle for transport. He started creating hundreds of prototypes using paper first, to find a shape that would best fit various face sizes.
It took six months before he came up with a final design, and he filed an initial patent for it in 2004. That was the genesis of Totobobo (Mandarin for transparent (toto) and protection (bobo)). From then on, it was a matter of getting it to the market, which Mr Chu did – and in no better time as well – earlier this year.
Totobobo is now the world’s first customisable respiratory mask, designed to fit all face shapes, which is also child-friendly.
Having a snug fit is important, he stresses, because if it doesn’t fit, it means you’re not fully protected from contaminated air. This defeats the purpose of wearing a mask, he points out.
‘Current respirator solutions require fit-tests to ensure that the mask fits the individual’s face, which isn’t a realistic requirement for most people,’ explains Mr Chu. In terms of fit, Totobobo is made with a special blended plastic which is soft enough to comply comfortably to the contours of the face, but not too soft that it touches the mouth. The mask doesn’t contain silicon or latex, but can be washable.
On both sides are filtering material imported from Germany, which is able to block 94 per cent of very fine particles including bacteria and germs. ‘If a higher level of protection is needed, you can put two layers of filters together and that will bring the filtration efficiency up to 99 per cent, comparable to N99 masks,’ says Mr Chu.
The good thing is that putting on the mask won’t make you look like a SWAT team member. ‘My intention was to design a mask for normal people and I wanted to create something that would not look too odd when worn in public places, such as a crowded bus during the flu season,’ he explains.
The current swine flu scare is certainly going to see sales of Totobobo go up, but even before this scare, Singapore-based Dream Lab One (the company that Hong Kong-born Mr Chu and his wife, Sharon Li, started) had been selling the mask online, and it has been bought by consumers from over 20 countries.
Among the target audience are cyclists and asthma sufferers, as well as travellers who need to block out both polluted air and other various irritants.
If you’re checking through your mask supplies, it’s time to get up to date with a Totobobo mask. Most likely, the surgical masks from the 2003 Sars days would be unusable, as the straps would have disintegrated into pieces. I should know since I unearthed mine this week.