Air-Purifying Headphones Aim to Help Urban Dwellers Breathe Easy

As air pollution grows in countries around the world, new inventions are on the horizon to provide relief over the traditional face mask. (Photo: By Katoosha/Shutterstock)

Dyson, a company best-known for its innovative line of vacuums and fans, is apparently also interested in providing urbanites with a portable way to filter air pollution. The company recently filed a patent in the UK for a pair of headphones that intakes polluted air through ear cups and directs the filtered product to an integrated mouthpiece.

In the filing, Dyson engineers behind the invention describe it as a more convenient alternative to traditional face masks.

"In locations with particularly high levels of air pollution, many individuals have recognized the benefits of minimizing their exposure to these pollutants and have therefore taken to wearing face masks with the aim of filtering out at least a portion of the pollutants present in the air before it reaches the mouth and nose," the inventors write in the invention summary. "However, as these face masks typically cover at least the user's mouth and nose, they can make normal breathing more laborious."

A high-tech personal solution for smog-choked cities

A patent illustration of the Dyson air-purifying headphones.
A patent illustration of the Dyson air-purifying headphones. (Photo: Dyson/UK Patent Office)

So how does Dyson imagine this device working? As you might have guessed for a company that specializes in innovative ways to move air, the ear cups contain small fans that spin at 12,000 rotations per minute. According to Bloomberg, this provides enough suction to draw in approximately 1.4 liters of air per second. The air is then filtered to remove pollutants and pushed to a partially-transparent mouthpiece at the front of the user.

A detailed view of the ear cups with integrated fans.
A detailed view of the ear cups with integrated fans. (Photo: Dyson/UK Patent Office)

As a way to reduce the noise of the fans, which The Verge says spin "over 10 times that of a typical PC fan," the headphones also include adaptive noise cancelling with an integrated microphone and speakers.

While it's unknown whether this patent will ever evolve into an actual product, it's unfortunately something that many people could use. In its "State of Global Air 2019" report, the non-profit Health Effects Institute (HEI) listed air pollution as the fifth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide, ahead of malnutrition, alcohol use, and physical inactivity.

A Chinese man wears a mask as he waits to cross the road near the CCTV building during heavy smog on November 29, 2014 in Beijing, China.
A Chinese man wears a mask as he waits to cross the road near the CCTV building during heavy smog on November 29, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Kevin Frayer / Stringer/Getty Images)

“A child’s health is critical to the future of every society, and this newest evidence suggests a much shorter life for anyone born into highly polluted air,” said Dan Greenbaum, President of HEI. “In much of the world, just breathing in an average city is the health equivalent to being a heavy smoker,” he added.

So are Dyson's air-purifying headphones straight out some dystopian science fiction film? You bet. But it's increasingly our reality that much of the world is living and breathing in cities where that unthinkable future is already playing out. Necessity in the face of such awful manmade pollution will eventually push something similar to market.

Whether humanity take the hint and does something to render them useless is sadly less certain.