While the use of tear gas has long been banned in warfare (thanks to the 1925 Geneva Protocol), law enforcement agencies around the globe are still permitted to use this chemical weapon and others like it for riot control. Sometimes those riots are not riots at all, but peaceful gatherings and protests.

When widespread pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong over the summer of 2019, tear gas became a favorite deterrent of Hong Kong police forces, with some agencies estimating that more than 2,000 canisters were being fired into crowds every day.

Halfway across the world, these events prompted a group of students in the Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design to take action. Using the protests in Hong Kong as a design challenge, industrial design students Alex Munro and Claudia Hasenfang, along with recent industrial design alumni Cole Powell and Ian Annis, created the Temporary Eye and Respiratory (T.E.A.R.) Mask.

The T.E.A.R. Mask is a pocket-sized anti-tear gas respirator that protects the eyes, nose, and mouth from the harmful effects of tear gas, which may include chemical burns, blindness, asphyxiation, and even death. Its design is compact enough fit in a pocket or purse, with a simple approach to use that can be deployed quickly and safely.

The result of almost a year’s worth of design iteration and prototype refinement, the T.E.A.R. Mask was recently recognized by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) with a 2020 Industrial Design Excellence Award (IDEA), one of the discipline’s highest honors.

The IDEA awards draw thousands of applicants every year from all over the world in categories ranging from commercial and industrial products to digital interaction, consumer technology, and sports and recreation. To say that winning an IDEA award is a noteworthy accomplishment for students would be a massive understatement. Among the previous winners are the original Apple iPhone, the Tesla Model S, the Oculus Rift, and countless other projects that have quite literally changed the world.

To their acclaim, Virginia Tech and its design students have received two IDEA awards in the past: LaXmi, a financial literacy education system that promotes micro-financing in India, and immune, a cell-phone based information management tool that supports immunization programs. The T.E.A.R. Mask is now the third Hokie-led project to join their ranks.

The students first began working on the T.E.A.R. Mask for submission into the industrial design program’s annual spring design competition. The theme for the 2020 competition was inclusivity through design, and the students prepared their entry as an answer to the ongoing protests and injustices in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, the T.E.A.R. Mask didn't even warrant them a position in the competition’s top 10.

“Their project did not really address the issue of inclusivity," said Akshay Sharma, associate professor and chair of the industrial design program. "Instead it focused on creating a safety shield for helping people in an emergency situation.”

Essentially, the T.E.A.R. Mask was designed to protect people from abuses by authority, not to help break down stereotypes or protect stigmatized groups.

But even though the project didn’t address the competition’s theme, Sharma and several other industrial design faculty members saw great potential in the students’ design. They approached the T.E.A.R. Mask team and urged them to keep refining their project for possible entry into the IDEA awards.

With encouragement from faculty, the four students jumped back into improving their design. One simple but powerful addition was a change to the way the mask is held in place. With the original design, users would have to use their hands to hold the mask against their faces, which initially seemed like a reasonable requirement. But once the team realized that such an expectation excluded people whose hands were otherwise occupied, like a parent trying to protect a child, they added a strap that allowed for hands-free use.

The T.E.A.R. team spent the next few months juggling school, life, and design revisions to get their project up to IDEA standards – all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these pressures and a few last-minute reshoots for the project’s promotional materials, the team learned that they had been named finalists in early August. On Sept. 16, the IDSA held a virtual IDEA recognition ceremony, during which the team learned they had won Bronze in the student designs category.

"It’s hard to believe that we're now in the same league as lululemon or Logitech," said Powell, one of the T.E.A.R. Mask’s student designers. “I would never expect to win this award, especially not as a student. It's just really a humbling experience."

Although the T.E.A.R. team doesn’t yet have plans to produce a consumer version of the mask, Hasenfang, another student on the project, feels that the design’s biggest impact so far has resulted from how many people it has been able to reach.

“At its core, the T.E.A.R. Mask is a message about the importance of human rights,” she said. “It’s about bringing attention to the misuse of tear gas, and about trying to protect freedom of speech and the right to protest. And our design is doing that.”

–  Written by Aydın Kırcallı

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