Thinking Tech

Smart toilet remembers to put seat down, freshens the air

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The Numi offers futuristic features such as a heated seat and foot warmer, a premium stereo system and a "bidet" option.

Status symbols are a funny thing. It's very American, for instance, to spare no expense to have a lawn that leaves the neighbors green with envy. Yet, in China, nothing conveys affluence quite like a $6,400 toilet.

Dubbed the Numi, the latest top-of-the-line  porcelain throne from Kohler, which specializes in kitchen and bath fixtures, debuted last year as the ultimate bathroom centerpiece. It offers futuristic features such as a heated seat and foot warmer, a premium stereo system, water saving eco-flushing functions, and a "bidet" option that lets users go beyond toilet paper to ensure they walk away clean and refreshed. Heck, it even one-ups live-in boyfriends by automatically opening or closing the seat lid when it's supposed to as well as deodorize the room after use.

Yet despite all the razzle dazzle, Kohler's bottom line hasn't exactly been flush with profits. In fact, sales have fallen from $5.5 billion annually in 2008 to about $5 billion in 2011, and the Wisconsin plant has slashed its work force, from about 2,700 to about 1,800, according the the Wall Street Journal. But while the Numi hasn't caught on in the recession-battered U.S., the company has started ramping up overseas production to meet demand in China, where the robotic toilets have become a hit with a growing upper class.

"What we have started to see in the past few years is upper-middle-class consumers who suddenly have more discretionary income," Yuval Atsmon, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company, told the Wall Street Journal. "People who buy things for their homes like to tell people about what they're buying. Brands that have managed to stand out as premium brands have done very well."

So why, of all things, have toilets suddenly become a way of telling others you have arrived? To find answers, the LA Times took a look at some of the recent cultural shifts that have lead to what has been called China's "porcelain revolution." Here are some insights from their report:

The surge underscores the desire of millions of Chinese to enjoy a better standard of living. And it has been a bonanza for plumbing manufacturers, which are vying for a piece of the world's largest loo market. Nearly 19 million toilets are sold in China annually, about double the number sold in the U.S., said Victor Post, vice president of BRG Consult, a global building products consultancy.

"China is the most competitive market in the world," said Larry Yuen, president of Kohler Asia, which has 11 factories in China. "There are brands from Japan, Europe and America all fighting for market share."

China's porcelain revolution took off soon after the communist government gave the green light to private property development just more than a decade ago. Since then, the amount of new urban residential space unveiled each year has doubled. Most apartments are delivered bare, meaning buyers have to outfit them with basics such as bathroom fixtures.

Alright. Admittedly, I've always felt that anything that involves spending a lot of money just to attain some kind of coveted standing can, on a certain level, be somewhat obnoxious. But at the very least, this latest fad is more about improved functionality than just merely showing off.

I mean seriously, what good would a bling-ish gold-plated and diamond encrusted toilet be if I can't get a warm seat.

(via Wall Street Journal)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure