In the heart of Wiltshire and on the outskirts of the Cotswolds, the region’s air quality monitoring plants rarely register anything above a “Low (Subscript 2)” ranking when it comes to tracking pollutants in the air.
So nestled between rolling green hills, fields full of cows, sandstone mansions and quaint cottages, it’s hard to believe that one of the most dystopian gadget ideas of our time could have been conceived in the peaceful market town. from Malmesbury, UK. .
But the Dyson Zone, a whole new idea combining air purification with personal audio from the company best known for high-performance bagless vacuum cleaners, was conceived at Dyson’s Malmesbury campus, and looks and sounds to a prescient warning of an ominous future. – one in which humans have caused such irreversible damage to the environment that we need wearable breathing apparatus to survive.
I recently had the opportunity to test drive the Dyson Zone at the company’s UK headquarters and was struck by the contrast between the idyllic surroundings and the seemingly lavish implications of the product’s design.
The existence of the Dyson Zone indeed indicates that the air around you, which you breathe every day, is so full of harmful substances that you should be tempted to invest several hundred pounds or dollars in a gadget to 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 the eyebrow-raising reveal in March, the Dyson Zone is much less intimidating in person. The exact specs remain shrouded in mystery, but here’s what we know so far.
Looking first at the headphone component of the design, the Zone combines powerful noise canceling technology with a “high performance neodymium electro-acoustic system”. Dyson says it will have the “largest” drivers in a headset on the market, which should allow for spacious and powerful sound, but did not share specific details on what exactly will be used.
Tuned to sound “neutral” in order to be as close as possible to an artist’s original intentions in the studio, it’s an impressive first roll of the dice for a company that has never worked in audio before. Or, at least, in audio reproduction, because Dyson’s raison d’etre is all about airflow, and many of its products are tuned to make the sounds of their components and suction motors as pleasing as possible.
Our brief time listening to the headphones wasn’t enough to fully understand the sound of the final product, but what was presented was enjoyable. A quick listen to Freya Ridings’ Lost Without You showed the delicate vocal and piano work delivered with clarity, though it wasn’t much of a challenge to the system’s bass capabilities.
What the smooth ride had to deal with was the roar of the helmet’s built-in air purification system and its associated filters and motors. More on those in a second, but their presence was barely audible thanks to a very effective active noise cancellation system that will also offer a transparency mode to better hear the world around you. As for the volume control, it’s handled by a small touch-sensitive joystick button on the side, securely housed in the earcup, with the cup itself being touch-sensitive for touch-activated playback controls, at least as responsive than rival high-end headphones of this ilk.
That the headphones are any good at all is a feat in itself considering what else is going on in the boxes above your ears.
Within each cup is a motor that draws “dirty” air through a two-stage filtration system, cleans it, and then projects it into a visor-style mouthpiece. This makes the earphones considerably larger than usual and, although heavy, they seem to remain comfortable thanks to a reasonable amount of padding and well-thought-out weight distribution.
Dyson says the zone can capture 99% of particulate pollution (from dust to pollen and bacteria) and can filter out common city gases like NO2, SO2 and O3. It has come under criticism for the devices’ potential handling of COVID-19 (the device was designed before the pandemic erupted, while Dyson never claimed the zone was a defense against the virus), but Dyson’s tests are “in progress”, and the company is convinced that its filtration system is up to the task. At the very least, it’s sure not to amplify the potency of the virus to the wearer or those in close proximity to the area, and an additional, more traditional, mouth-covering face mask will be included with every purchase. .
This is where the nasty sci-fi part comes in. The headphones magnetically connect to the mouthpiece, which then sits in front of the wearers mouth, rather than over it. Crusher, Scourge, daft-punk – his a glancesure, but since it doesn’t touch your face, it’s surprisingly comfortable.
Pull it out and you’ve got a standard (if oversized) pair of headphones, while rotating it into a chinstrap-like position pauses your music so you can chat. Snaps on and off with relative ease (the visor component weighs next to nothing even with its built-in diffuser), Dyson seems to recognize that you won’t want the mouthpiece left on all day, but you Clip it on when the air quality seems particularly poor – something Dyson is looking to alert users via a connection to an associated app.
The air pumped forward from the visor is also nice – a cool, gentle breeze, as if a little sparrow had been used to hiss at your lips. It’s also reassuring to know that it’s been cleaned of airborne trash, although Malmesbury’s air wasn’t exactly the best place to test its effectiveness.
A vision of a future you might not want to see
It’s hard to say whether the Dyson Zone is prophetic or reckless – an early glimpse of an everyday element of the future, or a generic response to the perceived problems of days to come. It may be a bit of both.
But what is most difficult to reconcile is… who is it aimed at exactly? As is symptomatic of all modern man-made ills, those most at risk of concentrated exposure to pollutants are those least likely to be able to afford something like the Dyson Zone.
It’s hard to imagine many people in Hotan, China or Ghaziabad, India (the two most polluted cities in the world as of 2020), being able to cough up money to own the area. Pollution and poverty go hand in hand, and Dyson remains a premium brand – the ‘Apple’ of home appliances.
And yet, unless this is all some giant PR exercise (which Dyson assures us it isn’t – this is a very real product coming to a store near you ), Dyson must believe there is a profitable market out there for it to go through the assumed millions it will cost to design, engineer, produce and market the Zone.
Which only leads me to imagine an even more over the top vision of the future that has been portrayed so often in science fiction – a world of haves and have-nots, where the rich few live a long and healthy life thanks to admittedly well-intentioned designs like the Zone, while those most at risk continue to endure and suffer unprotected. If the area proves popular, perhaps the technology will trickle down, be iterated, and become cheaper. But it’s hard to imagine it out of reach for the elite in the short term.
That’s the thing. For the Dyson Zone to be commercially successful, the world has to be well and truly… well, F*****. And while I admire the engineering expertise presented here, I really hope that’s not true.