Electronic Design

High-Tech Bathrooms: Electronics' Final Frontier?

Proving that electronics will eventually enhance every aspect of our lives, last month, Appliance Magazine cited the bathroom—perhaps the final frontier for high technology—as one of the fastest growing and most profitable new electronic product areas. Just as we're getting used to public restrooms with sensors automating the dispensation of soap, paper towels, and even plastic toilet-seat liners, it's inevitable that "smart bath" technology will be making a splash at home as well.

I encountered my first heated toilet seat some 20 years ago when I first visited Japan. So I guess I should have expected that country's TOTO Ltd. to be the force behind a $5000 "aware" toilet—a toilet with more smarts and sensors than you can shake a toilet brush at (although you won't need one if you invest in this self-cleaning model).

The "Neorest," rolled out in the U.S. this month by TOTO USA, is billed as a "sensually functional, integrated, high-tech toilet/Washlet cleansing system." It incorporates more sensors and offers more features than any electronic designer dared to dream of during his or her most private moments:

  • Its $5000 price tag is easily justified by any household wanting to solve the age-old seat-up or seat-down battle between the sexes. The Neorest's lid automatically opens when an individual approaches. If the user continues to stand in front of it, as would a man, the toilet seat automatically rises as well. When the individual leaves, the toilet automatically flushes and the lid recloses.
  • The "Power Catalytic Deodorizer" function may be a marriage-saver as well, deodorizing when the user rises from the seat (and whether the user thinks deodorizing is needed or not!).
  • Sensors are put to even dirtier work in divining whether the user has deposited liquid or solid waste. A dual-flush water conservation mode sends liquid down the drain with a "light" 1.2 GPF (gallon per flush) flow, while solid waste is propelled by a full 1.6 GPF "full flush" mode. In either flush mode, a "Cyclone" flush engine powers three stages of flushing (which sound more like rocket liftoff than toilet flushing to me): the initial "rim-scouring cyclonic motion," "siphonic jet action," and a final "rim scouring" stage.
  • With the flip of a switch, one can set Neorest to a cleaning mode that keeps the Cyclone rim-scouring motion engaged for one minute and then automatically drains the bowl. TOTO claims that this force, combined with its SanaGloss glazing process, is all that's needed to keep the bowl spotless.
  • Plus, you can kiss your bidet goodbye. Neorest is outfitted with "Washlet" technology, a warm-water cleansing unit that includes oscillating spray massage, front- and back-aerated warm water spray, and a warm-air dryer. Of course, there's also a heated seat.

While bathroom electronics is a nascent market in the U.S., a report from research firm Asia Pulse on the market indicates that Asian demand is growing at an annual rate of 25%. More firms worldwide are developing such products because the average profit range to manufacturers is between 10% and 30%, twice that for other household electronics, according to the Asia Pulse report.

Of course, luxury bath electronics don't stop at the commode—or in Asia. California's Jacuzzi, the originator of the jetted bath, is marketing a $30,000 product called La Scala that integrates a home theater and whirlpool bath in one unit. The two-person jetted tub includes a DVD player, 43-in. HDTV, CD/AM/FM stereo and surroundsound, and of course, a floating remote control.

Europeans aren't standing still when it comes to bathroom innovation. Philips HomeLab opened last year in the Netherlands to study how people interact with prototypes of intelligent technology in all rooms of the home, including the bathroom. The HomeLab includes a bathroom mirror that integrates data and video displays, providing news, traffic, weather, and voice-controlled TV tuning. HomeLab study participants, says Philips, appreciated the ability to watch the news and traffic while also shaving or brushing their teeth. (Just hope it comes with a defogger as well!) In fact, Philips introduced the Mirror TV in June as the first commercial product to come out of the HomeLab project. The Mirror TV integrates a 17-, 23-, or 30-in. LCD, using a polarized mirror technology to transfer close to 100 percent of the light through the reflective surface.

I'd like to hear from any of you who are working on bathroom electronics and what you see on the leaking, I mean, leading edge. For that matter, I'd be interested in hearing from you about your leading-edge projects, even if they're not bath-related. Note that we have debuted a new column focusing on our readers and their projects called "I Design." Check it out on page 80, and send me an e-mail if you (or a friend) would like to be featured in this new column.

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