Danielle Baskin was discussing with friends the growing prevalence of surgical masks when the issue of facial recognition was brought up. How could one utilize technologies such as Face ID to unlock their phone while the bottom half of their face was covered?
“Easy,” exclaimed Baskin, a San Francisco-based artist. “Just print your face on it.”
The answer seemed obvious to Baskin, who runs multiple companies that specialize in printing on curved surfaces. And within a few hours of that conversation, a website for Face ID compatible respirator masks was up and running.
The project, Baskin told the Daily Dot, combines two of her passions: printing and dystopian humor.
The concept appears to be a hit as well. After sharing a link to her new site on Twitter, the requests immediately came rolling in.
“The product is becoming viral, unfortunately,” she says. “Even though the website clearly reads as dystopian late-stage capitalism, over 100 people asked to be on the waitlist to get a mask when the product launches.”
Baskin has made it a point not to immediately begin production of the masks for several reasons. For starters, the printing process must first be mastered to ensure that a realistic look is obtained.
Secondly, the masks must be tested against the facial recognition technologies utilized in numerous modern phones. While this may prove difficult as phone companies are constantly developing new security mechanisms to stop everything, from 3D-printed heads to hackers defeating face locks, Baskin suggests that users could always wear the mask to begin with while setting up features like the iPhone’s Face ID.
But the primary reason behind the delayed rollout is linked to the idea’s conception: viral epidemics. At the moment, the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has spread to more than two dozen countries and claimed over 1,600 lives. The issue has also caused a worldwide shortage of protective masks.
“I’m not making them right now while there’s still a global mask shortage,” Baskin says.
For now, no launch date for the masks has been set, but the project’s foundation has been laid. Once launched, users will be able to visit the product’s website and upload an image of their face. Users can then adjust the image on the company’s web app to make sure there are no alignment issues prior to finalizing their order.
Images will be printed onto N95 masks with non-toxic, natural dyes. Even the mask’s elastic band will be made to match a buyer’s skin tone.
Given current concerns over facial recognition companies, Baskin stated when asked about data retention that she did not intend to store users’ photos once a mask has been made.
“I would not store uploaded images after they are printed,” she says.
Baskin admitted though that the issue is complex. If she were to rely on a third-party company for her image uploading tool, would they store the data? These are all issues Baskin is working to figure out prior to launch.
It should also be noted that N95 masks, which are designed to protect against liquid and airborne particles, are not a sure bet against the coronavirus. Numerous factors including the mask’s seal, whether the wearer has facial hair, or even the size of one’s face can determine how effective it is. Even when worn properly, some reports suggest that the disease can infect individuals through the eyes.
Baskin is aware of the limitations and says that masks are more effective in general when worn by those who are already sick. But few would argue that a mask is worse than no mask at all. At the same time, no one is quite sure just how serious the dystopian project is, including Baskin.
“Is this a Joke? Yes. No. We’re not sure,” the product’s website adds. “Viruses are not a joke. Wash your hands when you can. And get vaccines when you can.”
But viral epidemics aren’t the only use-case for wearing a mask that matches your face. Wearing protective masks, which has long been practiced in Asian countries, is becoming more and more common elsewhere due to a variety of factors.
Those concerned about facial recognition, Baskin says, could print a non-existent face created by artificial intelligence onto their mask. California residents looking to unlock their phones during wildfire season could find such masks useful as well. The same can be said of commuters in major cities plagued by air pollution.
Either way, it doesn’t appear that protective masks will be going away anytime soon. So they might as well be convenient.
“Between fires and epidemics, masks are now part of our everyday lives,” Baskin says.