There are certain products that I’ve always wanted to see appear on the market. Not necessarily because I want to have one, but because they appeal to the imagination and the concept of what it’s possible to do. One of these is the Bluetooth toilet. It’s a product I’ve suggested should exist in various presentations I’ve given over the years as an example of something that may initially sound silly, but could be quite useful. My argument is that amongst other things it could be a valid way of checking how often a toilet is used, which could be an early indicator for prostate cancer. Normally you can count on the Consumer Electronics Show – CES, which kicked off in Las Vegas this week, for some fairly off-the wall, wacky products, but as far as the Bluetooth toilet is concerned, someone else got in first.
The first company that I’m aware of to wirelessly enable a toilet was Greengoose, who have a sensor that you can fit to the toilet seat to determine whether or not it’s been left up by the most recent male user. They see it as a fun application, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, just before CES got going I came across a far more serious Bluetooth toilet from Lixil in Japan. There’s even a promotional video of it.
I’ve never been quite sure about the degree of technology that goes into Japanese toilets. They moved into a world of their own when Toto (a Japanese bathroom manufacturer, and nothing to do with the Wizard of Oz) launched the Washlet in 1980. Since then they’ve evolved to do almost everything including wiping your bottom. The new Lixil one allows you to control its different functions using a Bluetooth link from your Android phone. It even allows you to download music tracks to the inbuilt speaker in your toilet. I’m not sure what they’re used for, but it reminds me of a musical potty that was put on the market about thirty years ago for toilet training toddlers. For some reason that was never made clear, the UK version played the National Anthem whenever the child successfully emptied their bowels. I’ve always wondered whether that might act as some form of Pavlovian behavioural training, so that in later life massed ranks of the population would soil themselves whenever the National Anthem was played. The success of this year’s London Olympics suggest that either that was an unfounded worry, or that not many people bought the potties. However I notice that they’ve still available in the US, albeit with “It’s a small world” as the theme tune, rather than the Star Spangled Banner, so maybe the manufacturers have learnt something in the last thirty years.
But I digress. What is more important is that the Lixil toilet shows how wireless chips are getting into everyday and innovative new products that we might not have thought likely homes for them. It’s only a one word change to take us from training potties to training bracelets, but the latter is a hot market for wireless connectivity. For fans of these devices, January 14th is the official launch date of the Amiigo, heralded as one of the most desirable training bracelets. The sports and fitness market can be something of a fickle community. If their blogs are to be believed, the Nike Fuel is already old hat, not so much a friendship band as a previous acquaintance band. Jawbone’s UP is distinctly looked down upon after charging problems with the first version and the new clipless FitBit Flex with sleep monitor is probably only of interest to dozy armchair joggers. For those who don’t want to encumber their wrists, you can look forward to a pair of Myontec training pants – the higher tech and even closer fitting successor to a veritable ribcage-full of strap-on heart rate monitors that have appeared. Where Polar led, the commodity pack is following, with offerings from Beetsblu, iSport, Pearsport and Latitude amongst other. I like the feature that Latitude promotes, which is that their monitor goes to sleep when it doesn’t detect your heartbeat. Although I’m sure it’s a battery conservation strategy it does make you wonder whether they’re creating a new death and fitness category.
These are all moderately obvious applications of sensors and wireless technology. They feed the geeky fashionista end of the sports and fitness market, which whilst mercurial in its favourites, is helping to drive a healthy pace of innovation. What is interesting is watching some of the less obvious applications which are emerging alongside them.
When I was designing wireless modules at Ezurio, we proudly stated that we’d put Bluetooth into products as diverse as sex toys and snow ploughs. Although the headlines don’t show it, that trend is continuing. Classic Bluetooth is the mainstay of Nintendo’s Wii controllers, of which there are over 300 million in existence. At the other end of the spectrum, Bluetooth is also the wireless enabler of Lixil’s toilets. And the fact that Bluetooth Low Energy, or Bluetooth Smart as it’s called these days, is in iPhones and Androids means that there’s a growing number of other connected products.
At CES this week the Bluetooth SIG announced the finalists of its Breakthrough Awards 2012. They include a wirelessly connected Asthma inhaler from Asthmapolis, LUMO’s back and posture belt, with its rather endearing movement buddy application, Weartech’s smart T-shirt with integrated cardiac sensors and the zSmart mood LED – a 6W LED bulb that you set to whatever colour and brightness suits you.
As well as these there are plenty of other notable products which didn’t make the final list. There are numerous location tags to help prevent you losing valuable objects, including one from Ujuicer which suggests you can even use it for your pet and baby. That might have been useful for David Cameron – the UK Prime Minister on the occasion he left his daughter in the pub. On the more impressive side, it’s worth having a look at the bike trainer from Wahoo Fitness, which starts to push up the innovation stakes. Bluetooth Smart is even starting to displace proprietary wireless solutions from toys, with Joybien – a company behind many radio controlled toys, demonstrating a 1/14 scale Lamborghini controlled using a Bluetooth Smart link to an iPhone at CES. Over the coming year we’ll see a lot more. And I suspect that we’ll have another Bluetooth fridge from LG, if only because that’s what they do. Although Toshiba appears have pre-empted them this year, displaying a Bluetooth fridge, washing machine and microwave oven. The last is particularly impressive, given that both operate at 2.4GHz.
However, it’s not all plain sailing in this brave new world of wireless chips with everything. The biggest potential barrier to volume acceptance amongst the paying public isn’t what you can put wireless into – you can add wireless to almost everything, as CES is demonstrating. It’s how easily you can connect these devices to phones and tablets. Pairing of devices still remains the biggest single stumbling block to widespread acceptance of wireless, limiting the mass market to the early tech adopters and geeks. Nintendo have shown that you can make it simple, albeit in a closed infrastructure, and the Wi-Fi Alliance have made headway with their WPS protected setup and pairing buttons. But both of these are very closed environments, which makes it much easier to implement pairing strategies. Simple, interoperable pairing between a plethora of different products from different manufacturers remains the elephant in the room which the industry needs to address.
So a recent pairing solution of a slightly different kind caught my eye. Blacksocks.com has come up with an answer to the problem that has been plaguing mankind (with an emphasis on the masculine half of the species) for many years – that of non-matching socks. They’ve introduced a Plus+ range of socks with RFID tags which allows you to pair them correctly after each wash, using their Bluetooth enabled Sock-Sorter. I do question the business model. My suspicion is that the target market probably buys their socks in bulk in one design, so have no need of a pairing solution, but that’s another matter. What it does suggest is that NFC is reaching a price-point where it’s cost effective to incorporate, almost for free. (In case you think this might be a spoof product, not least because of its Orwellian double-plus name, it’s not. You can see the innards of the sock sorter and the official test certificates at the FCC site.)
Back in 2007, when Bluetooth 2.1 was released, the early demonstrations used NFC as a way to illustrate how to perform simple secure pairing. I don’t think any commercial product took it up, but maybe the time has come to reconsider it. A recent report from ABIresearch suggested that only around 30 million wireless health and fitness devices shipped last year. That’s against cumulative totals of well over 300 million Wii controllers, 10 billion Bluetooth chips and 5 billion Wi-Fi chips. In comparison to these numbers, all of these exciting new products are still little more than a dent in the overall quantity of wireless chip shipments. Unless we make it easier for consumers to connect a plethora of different sensor devices and monitors to their phones, that’s not going to change. We’ve had a year of innovation. What we need in 2013 is a year of pragmatism where we make these new products work out of the box. Otherwise they will never be much more than a CES novelty. It’s an important challenge that we need to crack. I hope we manage to solve it in 2013. If we do, the future for product designers and consumers will be a lot more fun.
As a footnote, Sony announced some new Bluetooth speakers at CES which do use NFC for pairing. I don’t know how open their API and implementation is, but it sounds like a step in the right direction.
(Thanks to Chris for the title.)