Wear it and breathe easy
Tan Jee Yee | 10 Mar 2017 00:30
Air pollution is a serious issue. Many people are breathing in particles that can be damaging to their health in the long run
In a report issued in September 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 92% of the world’s population now lives in areas where particulates in the air exceed safe levels.

“Particulates” here refer to ultra-fine matter like dust, soot and carbon that get lodged deep in our lungs and pose the greatest health risks. It’s not just particulates that spark concern, too – greenhouses gasses, hazardous chemicals and natural pollen and mould are problematic as well.

We’re in such a need to protect our lungs that there are whole industries of products just for that, like face masks and – perhaps both horrifying and hilarious – bottled air. It comes as no surprise that people would invent wearable devices that can help us breathe easier.

Plume Labs, a two-year-old start-up, recently debuted a portable, AI-equipped air quality tracker at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Instead of monitoring pollution at an environmental level, Plume’s wearable device, called Flow, collects data about an individual’s surroundings throughout the day, recording more specific conditions nearby at any given moment.

As such, the device could create more accurate pollution maps than those made with existing monitoring systems. Flow comes with a leather strap that users can use to attach it to bags.

The device, which is about the size of a flip phone, has sensors that monitor particulate matter – this also includes PM 2.5, which is the most hazardous of the particulates – as well as nitrogen oxide, ozone, volatile organic compounds, temperature and relative humidity in the area immediately around a user.

These metrics offer a more exact estimate of the air conditions individuals are breathing in, as opposed to city-wide air quality indexes. People can see the pollution levels Flow detects using a mobile app (for both iOS and Android devices), or via the 12 LED lights on the device. Pressing a button on the device activates the lights – if the shine is white, it means that the air is clean.

The more polluted the air, though, the redder the lights become. Flow compares its data with WHO’s own recommendations of air healthiness levels, so one can be assured of its reliability. Also, the LEDs are arranged like a clock face, and in another display feature, each light signifies the average air quality a user has breathed for the past hour.

Essentially, users can get a sense of their pollution intake during a 12-hour period at a glance. Data collected from each Flow units contribute to a “live air map”, which shows pollution levels at a given moment via Flow’s app.

The company’s environmental artificial intelligence feature lets users know where the cleanest air is in a city and makes predictions on when it’s healthiest to be outside via machine-learning models that predict pollution levels. It’s pretty intuitive.

For example, Flow’s app could suggest waiting until a specific hour for a person to open the windows to ventilate the home. People who are not comfortable with sharing their data to the live air map can opt out, though Lacombe has said that the spirit of the product is to create benefits for many through the pollution information it records.

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