VA mask invention enhances communication

Lets you see each other’s faces and catch social cues


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This collage of mask prototypes shows the evolution of development.

The Clear Talker mask is the latest invention from the Central Virginia VA Health Care System (CVHCS), meant to aid in communication between patients and staff. The device, a product of the hospital’s Assistive Technology (AT) team, could revolutionize this key piece of Veterans’ everyday lives.

When masks became a requirement at all federal health care facilities, AT realized how much current surgical masks hindered communication.

“I noticed after wearing a mask all day that I would come home and my eyes were tired,” said Melissa Oliver, occupational therapist and program coordinator of the AT team. “I had to rely on just my eyes to physically express my greeting.”

John Miller, Brian Burkhardt, and Seth Hills are rehabilitation engineers who work with Oliver. Their expertise ranges from vacuum forming, injection molding, laser cutting, electronics, 3D printing, and a whole range of other valuable skills used to help Veterans return to a sense of normalcy.

Rehabilitation engineers Miller and Burkhardt, pictured above, wearing the Clear Talker masks.

Catching social cues so important

“The Clear Talker mask may not make the cover of a fashion magazine,” said Seth Hills. Hills has developed several adaptive sports tools, custom mounting solutions and a novel wheelchair interface while with AT. “The fact that you can see each other’s faces and catch those social cues is invaluable.”

The Clear Talker meets FDA’s requirements for surgical masks under the emergency use authorization for single-use surgical masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Burkhardt. When the pandemic is over, the AT team will submit the Clear Talker for approval to become the new surgical mask standard.

The inspiration behind the mask

John Miller from the AT team was the inspiration behind the Clear Talker mask. He was born with progressive hearing loss in both ears.

“As a person with hearing loss, I do have hearing aids that allow me to hear sound,” Miller said. “But I also rely on lip reading to fill in the blanks that I miss with my hearing. After the pandemic started, I was grateful everyone was wearing masks, but it made my day-to-day life harder.”

Miller’s personal experience inspired him to pursue an engineering degree that would allow him to directly help people with disabilities.

The Clear Talker mask.

The Clear Talker mask is composed of a thermoplastic polyester (shown here). It provides significant chemical resistance, durability and excellent formability for manufacturing. The mask sizes are universal. Designers based the sizes on The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health standards.

The design

“The first time the three of us had these masks on, I almost felt like a weight came off of my shoulders,” said Burkhardt. “I felt lighter knowing the burden of understanding was diminished with the ease of seeing the whole face.”

The clear masks on the market today have filters located directly in front of the mouth, obstructing visibility.

“The idea behind the Clear Talker was to create a product with the fewest manufactured parts while still being able to read lips,” Burkhardt added.

AT held focus groups to test the design to ensure it helps people read body language and facial expressions, and it improved the overall connection.

Oliver said she hopes to have all testing completed within a few weeks to begin distributing the masks to staff at the hospital.

Learn more about this highly specialized team.


Megan Kon is a public affairs specialist at the Central Virginia VA Health Care System. 

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VAntagePoint Contributor

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