potty training

Technology has moved into every room of the house—except the bathroom

January 11, 2014
January 11, 2014

I’m lying in bed today trying to recover from my annual bout with a malady that strikes me every January around this time like clockwork. It’s no joke: My symptoms include coughing, sore throat, headaches and, ahem, intestinal distress. The direct and proximate cause of my illness is the Consumer Electronics Show, which draws over 150,000 attendees—each of them bringing a truly exciting array of microbes from every corner of the map.

Study after study has found that the gaudy consumer gadgets we spent the week swooning over are by far the filthiest things in your house, and the fact that the ones at CES are being touched by thousands of people a day doesn’t help matters. The most frequently cited statistic: Your average smartphone or tablet is festooned with over 25,000 bacteria per square inch—compared to just 1,200 per square inch for the average toilet seat.

That’s an average toilet seat. Nothing is average about Las Vegas, including the toilets. Sin City bathrooms, which are probably as important to the city’s cultivated aura of decadence as its casinos and nightclubs, if not more, have been the subject of any number of elaborate feature stories.

There are ridiculously luxe loos, like those of the Zeffirino restaurant, which feature custom mosaic friezes, floors made of Carra marble, Murano Glass chandeliers and washbasins, and private toilet “suites,” and the ridiculous 2,000 sq. ft. ladies’ lounge of Hard Rock Casino hotspot Vanity, which features individualized primping stations and a $40,000 chandelier.

There are WCs with awe-inspiring views, like the sky-high excretory aeries of Mandalay Bay’s Mix Lounge and The Palms’ Moon nightclub, whose stalls have floor-to-ceiling picture windows overlooking Vegas’s bedazzled skyline.

There are facilities that embody the city’s combination of synthetic sexy-time and calculated naughtiness, like the sassy, weenie-shaming urinals at the Venetian’s Public House (bearing the legend “STAND CLOSER IT’S SHORTER THAN YOU THINK”) and the Las Vegas Hilton’s stand-ups that feature images of hot models flattering or mocking the size of your package (depending on your POV).

And then there are the bathrooms at CES’s main venue itself, the 2.2 million sq. ft. Las Vegas Convention Center—ranked as one of the top three busiest conference facilities in America. The LVCC’s toilets are also not average, but in the other direction, featuring “automatic” flush mechanisms that release a dainty trickle into bowls with pinhole-sized drains when they’re working at all, manual flush buttons that require fumbling around germ-ridden surfaces to uncover, and pockmarked, stain-raddled seats. By the end of the first day of the show, they’re also generally clogged with indescribable, almost architectural levels of waste. In short, they’re unsanitary and maybe even barbaric—and probably the single biggest transmission vector of the creeping CES-itis plague. (In addition to the buffets offered up at CES’s fancy promo events, that is. More than once I saw people manhandle food and place it back onto trays. Protip: Stick to the antiseptic-by-definition alcohol.)

So here’s the question: Given that CES has become the preferred exhibition venue for a burgeoning category of advanced home technologies, why is there such a total absence of disruptive toilet innovation at the show? (The only toilet I’ve ever seen there was last year’s roundly mocked iPotty, a training poopstation for toddlers with integrated iPad holder.)

It’s not like highly advanced toi-tech doesn’t exist, as anyone who regularly travels to Japan and Korea can attest: The default toilet in even low-range hotels in developed Asia offers an amazing array of comfort and hygiene features that can be finely calibrated through an entire panel of buttons (although, admittedly, the icons can be mysterious enough to prompt extended puzzling over just what kind of rear-entry experience you’re triggering with each given selection). Some even have magical self-configuring capabilities—as I was reminded when I visited the bathroom at Las Vegas’s ur-Japanese dessert boite Sweets Raku, which features a Japanese-import toilet that senses your presence and opens wide as soon as you approach it.

But while living room, kitchen and garage device manufacturers are all well represented at CES, global bathroom brands are not.

That’s something Nick Rindt, product marketing specialist at leading kitchen and bathroom fixtures manufacturer Kohler, has been trying to change for years. “I was at CES last year, and when I got back, I told people ‘We have got to get our products out there,” he says.

Rindt, whose focus at Kohler is new product development, oversees the company’s flagship toilet: The Numi. Numi is to your average toilet what Tesla is to Buick—a connected smart toilet, at $6,400, that does everything short of pulling your pants up for you.

“It comes with touchscreen remote,” he says. “That’s not just to be cool—touchscreens are more sanitary than something with tactile buttons. Germs and grime can build up in crevices and on button surfaces and be hard to clean, but a touchscreen you can sanitize with a wipe. It has front and rear bidet, each of which is independently adjustable with three settings, pressure, position and temperature. If you want your bottom to be sprayed with hot water on a cold day, or cold on hot day, you can choose that.”

It also has the magical motion-sensing feature of the Sweets Raku toilet. “We designed Numi so you can use it without ever touching it. Yes, there’s a sensor that recognizes you’re there and raises the lid—but if you’re a guy, you can use your foot to break a beam on Numi’s right side and it’ll raise the seat ring up automatically. And if Numi doesn’t sense any motion for 60 seconds, it will close up and flush itself for you.”

Furthermore, Numi tracks how long it’s being used, and releases an appropriately mighty flush for what it assumes is solid waste. “It has dual flush—0.6 and 1.28 gallons,” he says. “If you sit longer than a minute, it presumes you were doing more, and uses the heavy flush.”

Numi was introduced in 2011 with an appropriate blast of fanfare: YouTube uploads of Kohler’s promotional vid for the Numi (shot, appropriately, in Las Vegas) went viral, generating hundreds of thousands of views.

Last year, the company launched Numi 2.0, adding a range of even more exotic tech features. “We think we’ve upgraded it quite a bit,” says Rindt, pointing to the toilet’s “advanced chromotherapy” feature that controls LED lights embedded in the Numi’s rear tank, which can be programmed to cycle through a soothing spectrum of colors to relax the most irritable bowel. Bluetooth connectivity also allows the setting of up to six different user profiles, which control not only the wash-and-dry features but also the temperature of the seat.

“And Numi 2.0 also learns your usage over time,” says Rindt. “If you only use it in the morning from 6 am to 8 am, it’ll heat up the seat for that period of time, then automatically power down to save energy.”

As if that weren’t enough, Numi now has a set of embedded entertainment options: It can play music through two rear speakers, either a preloaded soundtrack that was written specifically for Numi, or music from FM radio, an SD card or USB stick, or any Bluetooth connected device. (It’s this feature that may have induced superproducer Dr. Luke to make Numi the stakes in a bet with Miley Cyrus. “Contrary to what he thinks, Dr. Luke isn’t always right—I bet him that ‘Wrecking Ball’ would go to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and it did,” said Cyrus. “Now he has to buy me a $10,000 toilet. I’ll be thinking of him every time I go.”)

Forget curved televisions: Numi is the kind of technology innovation that I can really get behind. Or sit on top of. So why wasn’t Numi in Las Vegas, disrupting the grim dystopia of CES’s sanitary landscape?

“I’m still on the ‘We should be at CES’ train, but it’s a tough sell,” laughs Rindt. “Technology has moved now into every room of the house, and probably one of the last is the bathroom. We need to be there to show people that it’s finally happening.”

 Follow Jeff on Twitter at @originalspinWe welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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