In the heart of Wiltshire and on the edge of the Cotswolds, local air quality monitoring plants rarely register anything above “Low (Index 2)” evaluation of air pollutants.
So, nestled among rolling green hills, cow-filled fields, sandstone mansions and picturesque cottages, it’s hard to believe that one of the most dystopian gadget ideas of our time could have originated in the quiet market town of Malmesbury in the United Kingdom. .
But Dyson Zone, a brand new idea combining air purification with personal sound from a company best known for high-performance bagless vacuum cleaners, was conceived from Dyson’s Malmesbury campus and acts and looks like a foresighted warning of a worryingly possible future. – one in which people have caused such irreversible damage to the environment that we need portable breathing apparatus to survive.
I recently had the opportunity to try Dyson Zone at the company’s UK headquarters and was amazed by the contrast between the idyllic environment and the seemingly dire consequences of product design.
The existence of the Dyson Zone basically says that the air around you that you breathe every day is so full of harmful substances that you should be tempted to invest a few hundred pounds or dollars in a gadget that will clean it for you. [Note that Dyson has not yet revealed pricing for the Zone, but considering it’s miniaturised its household appliances’ purifying tech, and combined it with high-end headphones, don’t expect the Zone to come cheaply].
Despite raising eyebrows in March, Dyson’s zone is much less intimidating personally. The exact specifications remain shrouded in mystery, but here’s what we know so far.
When we first look at the headphones that are part of the design, Zone combines powerful noise cancellation technology with a “high-performance neodymium electroacoustic system”. Dyson says it will boast the “largest” headphone drivers on the market, which should allow for spacious and powerful sound, but has not provided any specific details about what exactly will be used.
Tuned to sound “neutral” to get as close as possible to the artist’s original intentions in the studio, it’s an impressive first roll of the dice for a company that has never worked in sound before. Or at least in sound reproduction, because Dyson’s raison d’être is all about airflow and many of its products are tuned to make the sounds of their intake components and engines as pleasant as possible.
Our short time listening to the headphones was not enough to fully understand what the final product would sound like, but what was presented was gratifying. When we quickly listened to Lost Without You by Freya Ridings, we saw the delicate vocal and piano work presented with purity, even though it was not a big challenge for the system’s bass capabilities.
However, what the soft ballad had to deal with was the snarl of the built-in air purification system in the headset and related filters and engines. More about them per second, but their presence was barely audible thanks to a very effective active noise suppression system that also offers a transparency mode for a better hearing of the world around you. In terms of volume control, this is addressed by a small, tactile joystick on the side, firmly located in the earpiece, the earpiece itself being touch-sensitive for tap-activated playback control, at least as sensitive as competing high-end headphones like this.
That the headphones are good at all is a performance in itself given what is still going on in the cans above your ears.
In each cup, there is a motor that draws “dirty” air through a two-stage filtration system, cleans it and then projects it into the mouthpiece-style mouthpiece. As a result, the headphones are significantly larger than usual, and although they are undoubtedly heavy, they look comfortable thanks to a reasonable amount of padding and a well-thought-out weight distribution.
Dyson says the Zone can capture 99% of particulate pollution (ranging from dust to pollen and bacteria) and can filter common urban gases such as NO2, SO2 and O3. He faces criticism about the potential handling of the COVID-19 facility (the facility was created before the pandemic broke out, while Dyson never claimed that the zone was a defense against the virus), but Dyson’s testing is “underway” and the company is convinced that its filtration system has fulfilled this task. At the very least, it is certain that it will not increase the potency of the virus for carriers or people close to the zone, and an additional mouthpiece covering a more traditional face mask will be included with each purchase.
Here comes the sci-fi negative part. The headphones are magnetically coupled to the mouthpiece, which then sits in front of the wearer’s mouth, not on it. Shredder, Curse, Daft Punk – yours viewcertainly, but because it doesn’t really touch the face, it’s surprisingly comfortable.
Remove it and you will get standard (if they are too big) headphones, while turning them to a position similar to the strap under your chin will pause the music so you can talk. Dyson puts on and takes off relatively easily (the visor part weighs almost nothing, even though it has a built-in diffuser), Dyson seems to recognize that you won’t want to wear the mouthpiece all day, instead you attach it when the air quality is particularly low. – Something that Dyson is trying to alert users to by connecting to the companion application.
The air pumped to the front of the visor is also pleasant – a cool, gentle breeze, as if a little sparrow whistling through your lips. The knowledge that he was cleared of the rubbish you would normally inflate is also reassuring, although the air in Malmesbury was not exactly the best place to test its effectiveness – it is hardly the factory city of Shenzhen or the smog-covered center of LA.
A vision of the future that you may not want to see
It’s hard to say whether Dyson’s zone is prophetic or hasty – an early look at the everyday object of the future or a wild card on the perceived problems of the days to come. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
But what is the most difficult thing to reconcile is … who exactly is it for? As is a symptom of all modern man-made diseases, the people most at risk of concentrated exposure to pollutants are the ones who are least likely to be able to afford something like the Dyson zone.
It is difficult to imagine many people in Hotan, China, or Ghaziabad, India (the two most polluted cities in the world from 2020), they will be able to cough up money to own the zone. Pollution and poverty go hand in hand, and Dyson remains a premium brand – “Apple” home appliances.
And yet, if it’s not all a giant PR exercise (which Dyson assures us it isn’t – this is a very real product that will soon come into business), Dyson must believe that there is a profitable market out there. In order to go through the estimated millions, it will cost the design, engineering, production and sales of the zone.
Which only leads me to imagine an even more straightforward look at the future that has so often been portrayed in sci-fi – a world of the rich and the poor, where a few rich people live long healthy lives thanks to undoubtedly well-meaning designs such as zone, while those most at risk continue to suffer and suffer without protection. If the Zone proves popular, the technology may be reduced, repeated and cheaper. But it’s hard to imagine it out of the elite’s reach in the short term.
That’s the thing. For Dyson Zone to succeed commercially, the world must be well and truly … well, F*****. And while I admire the engineering expertise we’re showing here, I really hope that’s not true.