Smart – does anybody really want it?

Managing director of Ripples, Paul Crow, asks what benefits smart technology may bring to the bathroom

I used to be able to predict the future. As a young boy, I was an avid viewer of Tomorrow’s World and got quite excited as Michael Rodd and his team gave me a glimpse of what my adult life may have on offer.

With our homes becoming much more smart and connected, I decided it was time to do some research on what the people I knew wanted in their own bathrooms, what our suppliers felt they could offer in the future, and what smart new products would help my colleagues in Ripples generate more sales.

Over the years, we have seen shower doors that slide shut when you press a button, toilet seats that close themselves and we all know about Toto and Geberit’s huge success with smart toilets that save you so much money on toilet paper that they pay for themselves by the time you are too old to wipe our own backside.

Or perhaps we should consider the infamous Grohe wireless shower. It was a standout product in its time and we rushed to place them on display. The good news was that it sold quickly, and very well. The whole concept of being able to switch on your shower while lying in bed was in a word, “cool”. Like many other successful consumer inventions, it was completely unnecessary and we loved the fact that Grohe had invented something that nobody knew they needed. The smart bathroom revolution had at last begun.

But then they stopped working – frequently. One circuit board after another failed and eventually both parties lacked confidence in the product to promote it at all. Such a shame, as it was an exciting product, certainly a great idea, and one that you must congratulate Grohe on for at least trying. There are, of course, other digital shower products on the market and consumers do seem to like them, but it does make me slightly nervous that even Hansgrohe is holding back a little in this area.

We also tried TapTile. It wasn’t that we were bored with, or against light switches, but it was a very clever idea in that you waved your hand over the tile as you walked into the bathroom and the device of your choice came on. But people didn’t want it. And those that did asked if they could put something on the tile so that they knew where the switch was. So we provided them with stick on templates that looked like light switches. I kid you not.

So what’s the next new proper smart product? We can already control the temperature of our bathrooms through our mobile phones. We can buy whirlpool baths with Bluetooth speakers built in. Waterproof televisions have long been available, but the truth is that they don’t sell very well, for the simple reason people don’t seem to want them – or aren’t prepared to pay a premium for them.

My 17-year-old son has none of these fancy gadgets at home, but what he does have is an iPhone and a wonderful-sounding portable Bose speaker, and he would say that both give him everything he needs, and I agree with him.

Healthcare is driving innovation in the bathroom and, like most things, it’s coming back to centralising around the smartphone. Philips has a smart toothbrush that tracks your brushing technique and this allows you to reveal the results to your dentist. Perfect for young children. Better for us chubbier adults is the Garmin smart scales, which can link with your watch or phone and monitor your body fat, muscle mass and performance against target weight. I would have called this a gimmick a few years ago, but now I would actually appreciate this and at £129 it would make a great add-on sale in the showroom.

Once, at a supplier factory I was visiting, the product developer asked a crowded room if a tap with a screen to see photos on is required. Everyone in the room looked at each other and then one chap merely said “why?”

There are many product areas that could be better represented than they currently are, that might just give us something to think about. The ability to know how much water each tap or shower actually uses has got to be beneficial at some point, and perhaps one day shower time will be defined by a preset program based on water consumption. Judging by the length of some of my son’s Spotify playlists, maybe this would save me a few pounds on the heating bill in the mornings.

So everything smart about bathrooms seems to keep coming back to the smartphone. I found that one survey in America undertaken by Verizon reported that 90% of all people asked used their smartphone in the bathroom.

I’ll leave the last word on the greatest invention in the bathroom to my supplier friend Jayne Barnes at Aqata, which is no stranger to product innovation. It introduced the industry’s first electronic sliding door – a product she tells me won an award, many column inches, but not record-breaking sales.

What for her was the smartest invention for the bathroom? She said ‘the lock on the door’. I bet even Michael Rodd didn’t predict that one.

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