I've had my face stuck in a Razer Zephyr facemask, ripping out Bane quotes to shop assistants and my son's nursery staff all week. And, honestly, I'm not convinced I can really pull it off, nor that the old world idyll of Bath, England is ready for it.
With my hood up, to ward off the torrential rain, I'm sure people were crossing the road to get away from me. Even on a dry, bright day, on a trip to buy infant nappies for an imminent arrival, I got my fair share of doubletakes walking the aisles of the local supermarket.
Razer has had its fair share of weird and sometimes wonderful concept projects, from PC gaming high chairs to triple-screen laptops to toasters. Seriously. Bread to win. But the pandemic brought another to CES 2021; Project Hazel, a new take on the protective face mask that has now become ubiquitous worldwide.
The original Hazel concept and the Razer Zephyr it has morphed into are strikingly similar, missing the one piece that would make it the ultimate Hallowe'en Bane costume accessory: the voice amp. That aside, we're still looking at a partly transparent mask, with twin intake fans, with N95 grade filters, and of course RGB illumination. Yes, you can connect it to your phone via Bluetooth and tinker with the Chroma RGB lighting.
Razer is now listing the Zephyr on its store, having launched it at RazerCon today. And you can order one right now for the princely sum of $99.99, or $149.99 if you want the starter pack with replacement N95 filters.
Despite its birth in the pandemic the Zephyr is being billed as a wearable air purifier, and is specifically not a medical grade mask designed to be worn in a hospital setting. So it's more for air pollution than necessarily protection against Covid-19. That said, the N95 grade filtration system is meant to filter at least 99% of air particles, and Razer says that while it isn't classified as PPE, nor has it been specifically tested against the Covid-19 virus, it "offers the same functionality and adequate protection due to its 99% BFE rating."
And will also comply with the mask-wearing mandates of both the USA and UK.
But, what of that vaunted voice amp? One of the issues with mask wearing is that it can render the wearer somewhat inaudible, Project Hazel promised voice amplification to combat that. I was hoping it would also provide some fun voice modulation functions via the phone app, but sadly neither has come to pass.
Razer states that it ditched the voice amp to make the final Zephyr design lighter and last longer.
For me, the most important piece of the Hazel prototype has been retained: the transparent front. I'm a man of advancing years, who spent far too much of their youth with his head buried in towers of speakers and bass bins in fields at 4am, and as such my hearing is not what it was. Masks have made a lot of human interactions far harder for me; I honestly didn't realise how much I had come to rely on lip reading until now.
The internal illumination and transparent plastic front, allows you to see the mouth of the wearer move, even in the dark of the night. And that also means you can see people smile. I can't count the number of times I've smiled warmly at someone by way of an acknowledgement while wearing a mask that makes such gestures moot. The Zephyr's biggest win for me is that visibility.
The biggest issue is that it's big, stands out a long way from your face, meaning your peripheral vision is hampered, and those two wee fans can get awful loud when you're running them at full 6,200 RPM mode. It's also kinda weird to hear the pitch of the fans change as you breathe in and out, too. Thankfully there is a quieter 4,200 RPM mode, and the ability to turn them off fully.
You can do the same with the RGB illumination around them, too, but if you're buying a $100 Razer face mask, be honest, you're turning those LEDs on.
The other issue I have with the Zephyr vs the washable cloth mask that I can stick in my back pocket when I'm not wearing it… well, let's just say I don't have a pocket in my jeans big enough to stuff it into.
And that means I've got to spend more time thinking about making sure I've got my mask with me if I'm taking the Zephyr out on my travels, let alone making sure it's charged. I mean, I'm not wearing an RGB-enabled face mask without turning the damned things on, bright sunlight or no.
There's also the fact if I've got to spend more time thinking about taking my mask out with me, I'm inevitably going to spend more time thinking about what I look like with said mask strapped to my face.
I will say this for the Zephyr, it's surprisingly comfortable to wear. And as a speccy glasses wearer it does solve the issue of having them steam up the moment I put a standard cloth mask on. The Zephyr is lightweight, easy to put on and take off, and fits securely to your face. Even as a bearded man.
But, as much as I'm enjoying weirdly intoning "no one cared who I was ‘til I put on the mask" to startled shopkeepers while rocking a natty sheepskin coat, the fact that it seems to be actively freaking people out is maybe a little off-putting. That said, my two-year old loves it, and is constantly demanding I put it back on.
Though that in itself is a mite off-putting, too, the more I think about it.