Kevin Jacob, a 19 year old student from Kerala, has come up with an innovation that would ensure that frontline workers don’t strain their voices while talking through the masks for longer durations.
Since last year, masks have become commonplace as a form of preventive measure against COVID-19. However, people are finding wearing masks for long to be an uncomfortable affair. They find it especially difficult to talk and hear people talking through them. As they tend to muffle sounds from the mouth. Many people are even moving their masks aside or even removing them while talking to be heard. Which clearly absolves the purpose of the mask.
Kevin Jacob, a 19-year-old engineering student at the Thrissur Government College, Kerala, noticed this too. He realized that his parents, both doctors, are facing this problem, just like everyone else. “They both work at the Metropolitan hospital and would return home with a sore throat at the end of the day. Because of the N95 mask and face shields they wore while on duty, they would have to raise their voices when speaking to patients,” he says. To help them overcome this problem, he came up with an attachable mic and speakers that could amplify speech.
He was aware that there were masks with mic inside, but they were too expensive. As a result, he decided to build a speaker by himself. However, he found that miniature mics and speakers available in the markets were too expensive or too heavy. Thus, he decided to make a microphone from scratch.
He developed a prototype of the mic and speaker in October last year. This allowed him to speak without having to strain his vocal cords too much or remove the mask. He continued his research through Youtube videos and several research papers. After getting sufficient knowledge, he recreated the mic and speakers using a 3d printer. He made it using pieces of equipment that were sourced locally or were imported. He also made circuit boards that would provide charging facilities for the device. He fitted strong double-sided magnets to hold the speaker in place on the mask. This tweak also enabled people to fix the device on face shields as well.
However, everything was not smooth at the beginning. Kevin made two test versions before making the perfect model. the changes were made based on the feedback he received from doctors regarding the sound quality. He also found the earlier versions to be heavier. Thus, he made a more streamlined device with better audio output by making some modifications to the circuit and altering the casing of the amplifiers. “The final version is 6.3 cms long, 3 cm wide, and 0.5 cms thick. It can be charged using a micro USB cord and takes up to 45 mins to fully charge,” he says. The mic is attached to the mask, while the speaker and amplifier are attached to a face shield. The microphone can also be attached on one side of the mask and the amplifier on the other. Both are connected through a wire.
Kevin’s parents wore the device to work every day when its final version was ready and referred it to their colleagues and fellow doctors who worked at other hospitals. Soon enough, word of his invention spread through his parents’ circles, and he started getting orders for doctors and medical workers. To date, he made 50 devices for doctors and frontline workers from various cities.
For example, one Dr Sareena Gilvaz, who heard about Kevin’s devices through a WhatsApp group for doctors, purchased one of them for Rs 900. She says that it has radically changed the way she interacts with patients. “I see more than 100 outpatients every day. It was difficult to speak to them wearing an N95 mask and a face shield. I would have to raise my voice as they could not hear me over the gear, and I would get a sore throat. However, this amplifier has changed that completely. I wear it from 9 am to 4 pm and charge it during my lunch and coffee breaks. Even patients have shown interest in the device as they can hear what the other person is saying clearly,” says Sareena. Dr Gilvaz heads the Gynecology department in Jubilee Mission Medical College in Thrissur.
Kevin’s device was selected as the best project by DARSANA Ignite in January this year. According to him, this newfound fame is purely accidental. “I never expected my device to become so famous. I just wanted to do something to help my parents out. I did not charge a single penny for the 50 devices I made earlier,” he says.
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Currently, Kevin has temporarily stopped making more of these devices to focus more on his college and studies. “From the beginning, I worked on these devices all by myself- from researching, procuring raw material, designing and assembling. I took no one’s help. And it is difficult for just one person to manufacture these devices on a large scale by themselves,” he says. However, he is open to sharing the technology with anyone who has the will and capacity to manufacture these devices on a larger industrial scale.