Working as an IBM engineer, it was natural for Gary Behm to try to fix problems, even if the problems weren’t officially presented to him to fix.
“For years, I worked in one of the most advanced semiconductor fabricators in the world. But because everyone had to wear a facemask that covers the entire head, with the exception of the eyes, it was extremely challenging for me to communicate with my co-workers,” says Behm, who is deaf and relies on reading lips and facial expressions to help him communicate.
“Imagine you are a deaf undergraduate student working on a team project in a clean-room environment,” he says. “All of the other members of the team are hearing and communicate by voice. But everyone on the team must wear facemasks in the clean room. The masks preclude you from seeing not only mouth movements as team members speak, but you cannot judge emotions, either, because more than half of their faces are covered. What could be the level of your participation in this team effort under these circumstances?”
Behm, now director of the Center on Access Technology’s Innovation Lab at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, is testing materials to create a see-through facemask that can be used in clean rooms and hospitals.
Others have tried to make see-through masks, but they would fog up due to respiration. The perfect mask must be flexible, prevent particles from going through and be able to allow sound recognition.
Behm has a patent pending application originally filed by IBM. He hopes that work being done now in the CAT Lab will refine those early prototypes with new polymers, enabling the commercialization of the see-through surgical mask. RIT plans to license the technology involved.