CES 2021: Consumer Electronics Makers Pivot to Everything Covid

Facemasks with built-in earphones and loudspeakers, desktop UV phone disinfectors, and a host of portable air purifiers are among the gadgets launching in the age of Covid

3 min read
Razer’s N-95 Project Hazel mask includes clear panels and a light to allow whoever you’re talking to see your mouth move.
Photo: Razer

It’s been ten months since the coronavirus pandemic changed everything—plenty of time to design, prototype, and manufacture products designed for consumers looking to navigate the new reality more safely, comfortably, and efficiently. And more than enough time to rebrand some existing products as exactly what a consumer needs to weather these challenging times.

So I wandered the virtual show floor of CES 2021 and the peripheral press-targeted events to find these Covid gadgets. Here are my top picks, in no particular order.

Tech-packed face masks

I’m sure there were many more variants of the high-tech face mask than I managed to find in the virtual halls. Those I spotted included:

MaskFone N95 maskPhoto: Binatone

Binatone’s $50 MaskFone, an N95 mask with built in wireless earbuds, uses a microphone under the mask to eliminate mask-muffle from phone conversations.

Razer’s Project Hazel mask comes with a charging box that uses UV light to disinfect while the mask charges. The N95 mask includes clear panels and a light, to allow whoever you’re talking to see your mouth move day or night (helpful for understanding speech for all, not just for those with hearing loss). There’s also an internal microphone and external amplifier for voice projection across social distances and built-in air conditioning. This is still a concept product with no pricing available.

AirPop’s $150 Active+ mask monitors air quality and breathing, tracking breaths during different activities and flagging the user when the filter needs replacing. A Bluetooth radio connects the mask to smartphones for data analysis.

Personal air purifiers

Luft Duo purifierPhoto: Luftqi

I’m not convinced that the average consumer will be as likely to toss a personal air purifier in their tote or backpack as they are to carry a canister of disinfecting wipes, even though these two products are about the same size. But plenty of gadget makers think there is a market for the personal air purifier. They don’t agree, however, on their choice of air purification technology. LuftQi, for example, uses UVA LEDs in its $150 Luft Duo; NS Nanotech picked far-UVC light for its $200 air purifier. And Dadam Micro’s $130 Puripot M1 uses titanium dioxide and visible wavelength light.

Lexon OblioPhoto: Lexon

Lexon’s Oblio desktop phone sanitizer

Lexon combined a wireless charger and a UV-C sanitizer into an $80 desktop appliance that looks like a pencil holder; there’s no reason why this gadget couldn’t disinfect pencils as well

Panasonic’s car entertainment systems

The moment that Covid tech jumped the shark might have been when Panasonic Automotive President Scott Kirchner, in introducing the company’s automotive entertainment systems, pitched the technologies as relevant because “our vehicles have become second homes” from which we celebrate birthdays and attend performances and political rallies. Panasonic’s latest in-car technology, he said, can drive 11 displays, and distribute audio seat by seat or throughout the cabin.

NanoScent’s Covid diagnostics technology

Talk about a pivot! Startup NanoScent, a company that has built an odor sensor that, coupled with machine learning, it has been developing for use in detecting gas leaks, cow pregnancies, and nutritional status, aims to use its technology to detect the coronavirus. The company says that the proliferation of virus cells among the microrganisms that inhabit the noses of Covid patients produces what it believes to be a distinct smell. It has run two clinical trials, one in Israel and one in the United Arab Emirates, with 3420 total patients.

Yale’s smart delivery box

Yale, the lock company, addressed the problem of no-contact doorstep delivery security with its Smart Delivery Box. Users place the chest wherever deliveries generally take place, weighting or tethering it to prevent theft. It sits there unlocked until it is opened, then, after a delivery person places items inside and closes it, it locks until the owner unlocks it with a smartphone. The $230 to $330 lockbox (depending on style and features) can also be managed via WiFi.


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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.