Don’t let CES fool you. All these pandemic gadgets aren’t going to save us

It was as predictable as the sun rising in the east. Long before the show even started, we knew this year’s CES was going to be less about self-driving cars and giant TVs and more about personal safety.

The pandemic – not to mention the fact that this year’s show was completely virtual – practically demanded it. And you didn’t have to look far to find new takes on masks, air purifiers, and other gadgets that are meant to protect people. The only problem? A whole bunch of those products were crap.

That’s not a new thing at CES. The crap-to-quality ratio is almost always tilted in the wrong direction. That’s just what happens at a show with tens of thousands exhibiting companies. But it was particularly noticeable this year. Many of the COVID-focused gadgets at CES 2021 were either blatant cash grabs or items with dubious protective/safety qualities.

The biggest eye-rollers were some of the “smart masks” that made their debut through the course of the week. Certainly, anything that makes face masks cooler and encourages people to wear them is a good thing. And, admittedly, today’s masks, whether paper surgical ones or layered cloth ones, are far from perfect. They do not, however, break the bank – something that’s more important than ever, as the jobless rate is still at a rate that’s equal to what it was in December 2013.

The AirPop Active+ smart mask tracks your breathing like a Fitbit tracks steps. But it costs $150.

There’s the AirPop Active+, a $150 (!!) mask that measures the user’s breathing data and the air quality of their surroundings, according to its creators. That’s a lot of bells and whistles, but is it something most people need? Probably not.

Maskfone’s $50 bluetooth-enabled mask at least features an N95 filter, as well as wireless earbuds and a microphone for clearer phone conversations. It’s not something you can throw in the washing machine, though, which puts it at odds with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to wash fabric masks “at least daily.”

LG, meanwhile, rolled out plans for the PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier, which has two filters, uses a rechargeable battery that lasts between 2 and 8 hours, and comes with a case that’s equipped with UV-LED lights to kill germs. (The included mask is, of course, “smart.”) There’s no price on this one, but don’t expect it to compare to the $5 dumb one you’ll find at Old Navy – and it’s hardly something you can stick in your pocket as you drive around.

Finally, Razer, which never saw a bandwagon it didn’t want to jump on, announced Project Hazel: a Bane-like face covering that purportedly offers N95 protection, RGB lights, and a voice amplifier. I’ll be amazed if it ever moves past the prototype stage.

Razer Project Hazel smart mask
Razer’s Project Hazel mask

There were, of course, also air purifiers and UV disinfectant devices, some targeting home users, others hoping to catch the eye of restaurant and office owners. There was even a temperature-screening robot. And health monitors continued to be rolled to the forefront.

The most popular term of the week was “FDA certified.” It sounds good and is the packaging equivalent of a weighted blanket for consumers, but it’s not a guarantee of safety or effectiveness. To receive clearance from the Food and Drug Administration, the company must show its product is “substantially equivalent” to similar products that are already on the market – and it doesn’t matter if those existing products actually work. In times like these, potentially false security is arguably more dangerous than none at all.

There’s certainly a need for improvements in masks and cleaning products. And this year’s CES was a great place to showcase those. At the core, though, there was nothing unveiled on the personal protective equipment or safety front that made any significant leap from what’s on the market now (aside from the leap on the price tag). The masks weren’t easily washable. The home equipment was largely a repackaging of existing technology and, at best, a minor evolution or improvement.

In other words, the pandemic tech at CES was a lot of flash with very little substance – in a year when the show, and consumers, could have used both.

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