Why This Headphone-Air Filter Mashup Is Too Brilliant and Bizarre to Ignore
Commentary: The Dyson Zone is a head scratcher. Here's why I can't stop thinking about it.
Katie CollinsSenior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
It's rare in 2022 for the tech world to offer a true novelty. Sure, tech has become faster, smarter and more reliable. But dare I say that it's also become a little tedious and predictable?
If there's one company going against the grain, it's the UK-based Dyson, best known for making vacuums and the TikTok-famous Airwrap hair curler. Dyson has a long history of playing with bold design, injecting splashes of bright purple and yellow into typically bland home appliances and upending people's expectations of what tech should look like.
But its latest invention, the Dyson Zone, has many people on the internet asking if it's taken this design philosophy a little too far. The product, first teased earlier this year but given pricing ($949) and a release date this week, is a set of over-ear headphones with a twist. Next to your ears sit a couple of filtration devices that circulate air around your mouth and nose thanks to a clip-on visor slung across the lower part of your face. (You can read our face-on impressions here.)
The Dyson Zone came about from the company's desire to use its air purification expertise to empower people to protect themselves on the move amid in places struggling with air pollution. The company, having partnered with universities to conduct urban air pollution studies, has gained an advanced understanding of the drastic health impacts of air pollution, which according to the World Health Organization causes 7 million premature deaths annually. With 70% of people expected to live in cities by 2050 according to World Bank projections, Dyson wanted to act now.
But rather than whether the device actually works or not, it's the striking looks of the Dyson Zone that have come to be its dominant feature. It divides opinion, including my own.
"It's no secret that the product stands out," said James Terry-Collins, a long-time Dyson engineer who now heads up the company's newly created wearables unit, in an interview last week. With the word "weird" and comparisons to masked supervillain Bane being bandied around by the media, I asked what words he would ideally like people to use to describe the Zone.
"Distinctive," he said. Dyson is accustomed to making products that don't look like anything you've seen before, he added, but then they become "design icons." This too is how he hopes people will come to see the Dyson Zone. "I imagine in 10 years' time, we'll be looking back and thinking, how prescient was that?"
The how and the why behind the Zone
The Dyson Zone has yet to make it onto the faces of consumers. That's all set to change in January, when it will go on sale in China, before coming to the US, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore in March.
Ahead of this public release, CNET got a behind-the-scenes look at where the Dyson Zone was created at the company's campus near Malmesbury, a pretty Cotswold town in an idyllic part of the English countryside.
When you break down the Zone into its component parts, it becomes clear that the device is nothing short of an engineering marvel. The company shrank the air filtration technology that sits inside its stationary household fans, making it smaller, lighter and quieter – all so it can squeeze inside a wireless headphone unit. The batteries, which in most headphones are by the ears, have instead been neatly hidden in the padding of the headband, and yet can still provide users with up to 50 hours of low-distortion audio.
"It was trying to work out how we could help people outside of the home, where you can't carry around a giant purification machine with you," said Terry-Collins.
In spite of the engineering breakthroughs, I had lingering questions about why Dyson decided to incorporate headphones into the Zone, and whether adding audio to a wearable air filtration device was necessary.
Terry-Collins assured me that while Dyson did start off by looking at different ways to mount a filtration system to the face (including an ill-fated effort to put it in a backpack with a tube that would blow air up your nose), it was pretty early on that the company decided to simultaneously tackle the issue of noise pollution.
"I would hasten to add that the audio system is not an afterthought," he said. "Having decided to have that audio system, that became the key focus."
Build it and they will come?
There's no question that Dyson has identified a public health issue in dire need of solutions, and built something to help solve it. But if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's that people won't always embrace the scientifically proven solutions when given the chance – especially if it involves putting something over your face.
It's not something that deeply concerns Terry-Collins. "We've always believed that if we can come up with a technical solution that solves a challenge that the form will follow the function," he said. "Just because something is a challenging or different aesthetic, that's not something that would ever stop us from developing something new."
Dyson has performed user studies in different cities around the world and found that people weren't freaked out when they encountered people wearing the Zone in public. Heightened awareness of air pollution in Asian cities seemed to lead people to find them more socially acceptable.
Other tech that's involved wearing something on your face hasn't fared well among the general population, although the reasons for this are often to do with specific function of the individual device, said Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight over email.
People never quite became comfortable with the idea of walking around with a camera on their face (as with Google Glass), and the bulkiness and inability to see where you are is proving similarly difficult to overcome for VR headsets, he said. "Eye contact is a key thing – and anything that impedes that, creates a distraction or makes it hard to read someone's expression is a barrier," he added.
This isn't an issue at all with the Zone, as the visor only fits over your nose and mouth, perhaps giving it a chance to succeed where other face-mounted tech has failed. Something I realized while donning it: It's stranger to look at than to wear. Plus, when compared to wearing a KN95-style mask, the fresh air being pumped around your mouth makes the Dyson Zone feel far less claustrophobic.
When I consider the long daily commute I used to make on the London Underground, I could clearly see how the Dyson Zone would provide immense sensory relief from some of the main stressors of the experience. The loud screeching and rattling on some of the lines used to regularly cause my phone to alert me to the fact that I'd been exposed to dangerous levels of environmental noise. The air in the carriages, meanwhile, was always stale and often malodorous and full of dangerous particles.
Dyson has tested the Zone's ability to combat this level of pollution (as well as viruses) using a mannequin called Frank who has sensors in his nose and mouth, and it had a 99% success rate at blocking out all manner of nastiness. I watched as Frank breathed in and out using his mechanical lungs (a blue balloon in a bucket) and worried about all those particles I'd breathed in on my commutes over the years.
"If you can give people something that can help to tackle that issue just for that hour, you have a really big impact," said Terry-Collins. "And then the product is still there for listening to music or focusing in the workplace."
Crunch time for the Zone
As I drove away from Dyson past the quaint honey-hued stone cottages of the Cotswold countryside, my time with the Dyson Zone left me feeling conflicted. I could appreciate Dyson's intense engineering efforts and their results, as well as the benefits of arming myself with a device that could protect my health while also meeting my need for entertainment on the move. But I was still unsure about whether people would be able to get their heads around the idea of the mouth visor – not to mention the price tag.
The Zone will be priced at $949 when it goes on sale in the US next March. Terry-Collins defended the cost, saying that while it might mean an expensive initial outlay, the product has been engineered for longevity and to offer high performance across many different scenarios and environments.
It may well also be in the Zone's favor that it feels luxurious and expensive. Dyson's signature transparent elements hint at the elegance of the internal engineering. Meanwhile, the accompanying storage systems feature leather, velvet and delicate contrasting stitching. Crucially, it also works. The sound quality is decent. Outside noise is a nonissue. The fresh air? It's extremely welcome.
But in spite of its high-end finish, the Dyson Zone doesn't necessarily feel finished. Instead, it feels like an early stop on a much longer journey. Terry-Collins confirmed my suspicions. The Zone is "paving the way for some of our next products," he said. "It's clear that this isn't a one and done."
The fact that Dyson will actually be selling the Zone come January indicates a long-term commitment to entering the wearables market. That leaves me wondering what's next, and whether it's more refined or socially acceptable than the Zone.
For the sake of what's to come, for the sake of our own health and for the sheer joy of playing with tech that's interesting (even if it divides opinion), it's fun to think that something as "distinctive" as the Dyson Zone could be a success.