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The Messy Future of Connected Bathrooms

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Connected homes take on spiffy little tasks. Turn on lights when you get home. Play smooth jazz. Regulate the temperature. You know, slick stuff.

But, soon, connected homes are going to start taking on the messy side of life. And, truly, what is messier than the bathroom?

Bathrooms are plenty functional. They are also woefully dumb. More or less, we’ve been using the same ceramic sinks and crappers for decades. Yes, you might have a touch-on spigot or a shower speaker or a smart scale or one of those Japanese-style bidet attachments. But those are largely piecemeal gadgets: Most don’t communicate with each other and, overall, they’re nowhere near as innovative as the rest of the modern connected home.

“The bathroom is a frontier that has never been truly explored because it has been stigmatized,” says Deana McDonagh, an empathic design strategist and a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois. “Even the basic toilet needs improving.”

But the bathroom revolution is nigh.

So far, a few companies have eased into this market, though their products have had the downside of being clunky or prohibitively expensive. The HiMirror smart mirror captures images of your face, analyzes the quality of your skin, suggests products, adjusts the lighting, and plays face-care tutorials — though it looks and works more like a massive iPad than a mirror, has to be plugged in to work, and you, uh, definitely don’t want to get it wet. Tech that integrates more seamlessly into your daily routine and that plays well with water (which is important because, ya know, it’s the bathroom) is on the rise, but it’ll cost you. The U by Moen Digital Shower, for example, remembers your favorite water temperature, plays music while you rinse, and sets a timer for your shower — but the system is a whopping $1,200 to $2,200 (the price depends on the number of shower heads).

More impressive is Kohler Konnect, an upcoming, sleek-looking bathroom line from Kohler with built-in Alexa and touchless capabilities. Gesture to change your mirror’s lighting. Tell the bath that you want it to fill with perfectly toasty water. Command your sink to dispense an exact measurement of water. And when you use the toilet, enjoy a bidet, individual seat settings, foot warmers, and a music player. It even flushes automatically. Their Verdera Voice Lighted Mirror will roll out this summer, followed by the showering system, faucet, and toilet in early 2019.

These products can make bathroom life easier for the aging or disabled. Eschewing knobs and handles for voice control could make bathrooms far more accessible for those with physical limitations; someone with cognitive disabilities wouldn’t have to worry about overflowing the bathtub or burning themselves on too hot water. The Verdera mirror has all the same capabilities as Alexa, so you can ask it about the weather, check your calendar, or add something to your to-do list while you’re shaving.

Admittedly, though, this is where the connected bathroom experience goes from Ooh, neat toilet-seat warmers! to concerns about possible invasions of privacy. Do we really want tech everywhere with us? Even when we’re nude? Even when we’re taking a poo?

The Kohler Konnect ad itself treads into creepy territory: Disconcerting, almost sci-fi-inspired instrumental music plays over a montage of a mother looming behind girls doing their makeup, another mother crouching down to watch her wide-eyed daughter pee, and an American Psycho look-alike showering. It’s cool and definitely not weird that your mirror is watching you, they try to communicate through an ad that includes a whole lotta lurking. No, not weird at all.

Kohler is partnering with Microsoft Azure to support end-to-end encryption to protect all user information. “Respecting and protecting the privacy and personal information of our customers is of paramount importance to us,” a representative for Kohler wrote me in an email. Their caution is warranted: There are certainly concerns about what Alexa might listen to if it’s hacked (or even if it’s not). Putting a microphone in your home comes with risks. (Though, okay, if that’s a concern, maybe you should also stop regularly checking Snapchat while you’re on the toilet … or at least consider that bringing your phone into the bathroom turns an already-filthy germ block into an even filthier one.)

Still, while these connected bathroom capabilities are, essentially, performing parlor tricks, they are opening the gateway to the next generation of connected bathrooms — which will be much more useful, will measure our biometric data, and will be intended to watch us.

“We dispel waste, but it’s holding on to so much data,” says McDonagh, the design professor. “We dispose of it too readily without even thinking about it.” It’s true: Urine and stool can tell us a lot about how well our bodies are functioning. Is there blood in your stool? How hydrated are you? Are you absorbing your vitamins or medication properly? Are you getting sick? Are you pregnant?

The longest time we’re completely naked is in the shower (unless you’re into that kind of thing elsewhere in the house, in which case, keep living your best life), so it’s the best place to surveil changes in our bodies. And the longest time we spend standing still is in front of mirrors, where we brush our teeth, wash our faces, pluck our eyebrows, etc. What a smart mirror captures could tell us more than just the fact that we need to exfoliate more. (Sorry, HiMirror.)

McDonagh imagines a future where, “in the shower, or while you’re brushing your teeth, mats could weigh you and little cameras that you control could identify things like precancerous growths, alert you that you have something on your back, and make an appointment in your schedule to see a dermatologist. It should be seamless.” The cameras in an Über-smart mirror could note any changes in your eye color or complexion, which can be relayed to a doctor, alter how your smart-enabled bedroom helps you get to sleep, or shift what’s stocked in your smart kitchen.

This kind of connected bathroom could, in fact, end up being one of the greatest medical innovations of our time. Imagine the possibilities for early intervention in sickness and diseases. Imagine how this information might work throughout your home seamlessly to improve your life, a surreal techy symphony.

On the other hand, what might happen if that very private data was leaked or mishandled? Few states have legal protections set up to explicitly protect biometric data. In many cases, what you upload ceases to be yours. Companies can sell your information; the government can use it to track you. Already, biometric data has been taken into consideration for legal cases. While most people breathed a sigh of relief when the Golden State Killer ended up behind bars, the fact that he was caught because of online genetic testing raised legit privacy concerns. And imagine, for example, a world in which health-insurance companies take into consideration readings from your connected bathroom before offering you coverage?

Companies are going to have to seriously step up before I trust them with scanned images of my naked flesh or feel secure that a hacked toilet won’t give me a false screening. Will we ever come around to it? Well, if we’re willing to install Alexa in our toilet, the answer is probably yes.

The Messy Future of Connected Bathrooms