When English mountaineer George Mallory was asked in 1923 by The New York Times why he wanted to attempt to climb Mount Everest again (after having failed in 1921 and 1922), he gave what is likely the most famous three-word answer in history.
“Because it’s there.”
Mallory may or may not have reached the top of the mountain – that remains an open question in history. But he is not credited with being the first person to hit the top of world (that was Sir Edmund Hillary) because what is not up for debate is that he did not make it back down to the bottom.
As American mountaineer Ed Viesturs famously said of climbing Mount Everest: “It's a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
And we can’t help but think of Sir Mallory as we watch the proliferation of smart devices that have taken shelf space by storm over the last 18-24 months, as a lot of the inspiration for creating them seems to be not because it’s there, but because they can.
Don’t get us wrong: There are many, many smart connected devices – speakers, cars, appliances, watches – that are all very useful because they make buying something easier, houses more secure, financial management less tedious or commuting to work more productive.
And then there is the other stuff that might be technically smart, but not all that useful.
The Notorious Smart Hairbrush
With the first introduction to L'Oréal's “smart hairbrush” technology, the Kérastase Hair Coach, at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2017, the world certainly took notice. Granted, most of that attention was dedicated to asking why anyone would ever need such a thing, but it certainly captured a lot of buzz.
And L'Oréal had an answer as to why. Sure, the average consumer hairbrush was doing the job of removing the tangle – but they believed that with a little upgrading, it could do so much more.
The brush is designed to be its owner’s partner in haircare. Powered by Nokia technology, the hairbrush comes with a microphone (which listens to the sound of brushing so it can identify patterns); an accelerometer and a gyroscope (to analyze brushing patterns and count brush strokes); and sensors (to determine if the brush is being used on dry or wet hair). The brush can then take all the data it has gathered and provide users with reports on how well they are brushing their hair – and to offer tips on not brushing too hard and when they are at risk of overbrushing.
And it would have been available for the bargain price of “under $200,” according to L'Oréal.
“We really want to think about what the connected bathroom will look like in the future for the beauty industry,” Guive Balooch, VP of L'Oréal's Technology Incubator, told Fortune in an interview.
It could have been available … if the device had ever gone on sale. Perhaps it was the rounds of social media mockery, or all the articles it spawned on the over-proliferation of smart technology – but though the product was billed as coming soon when it first made the rounds at CES a few years ago, it never actually showed up. Search Amazon, Google or L'Oréal website for “Kérastase Hair Coach” and you will find no record that this product exists or ever existed outside of the floor of the show. There had been some rumors circulating on the web this summer that the brush really was coming out this fall – but fall has arrived.
The smart hairbrush didn’t do anything that a good mirror in the bathroom couldn’t.
The Yoga Pants to Teach You Yoga
Smart yoga pants were not the first clothing-based wearable that the team at Wearable X designed. Their first two prototypes were Fundawear – something that we can’t talk about on a PG-13 site, and the Fan Jersey, a shirt that uses haptic vibrations to help fans "feel" players' emotions during a game.
But their first product that sold to a large group of consumers was a pair of yoga pants with sensors sewn in, to help the wearer improve their form for 30 different yoga poses. The pants work by waiting for their wearer to get into a pose before vibrating strategically to tell them how to adjust their legs to do the pose correctly.
The startup got a lot of attention, with write-ups in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, The New York Times and CNN.
"The point of the product isn't to say there is a right and a wrong pose," Founder Billie Whitehouse noted in an interview with CNN. "It isn't black and white. This is just about highlighting those micro muscles that you could be thinking about – that you don't even know exist."
Whitehouse says the pulses are intuitive, though reviewers of early prototype models noted that the pulses were also easy to overthink – and that yoga routines were occasionally interrupted when practitioners became distracted as to what their pants were trying to tell them.
The other often-mentioned feature of the pants was the price tag, which was initially around $300. The new price point is now $250 ($50 if one wants a pair with no electronics) on the eCommerce site.
The less good news? They are not easy to buy. Though Nadi X shows about 10 different versions of its product on their site – including its much-hyped men’s line of yoga pants – only two models are available, and sizing is limited. Customer reviews also indicated that shipping can take quite some time.
According to Wearable X, the new models will likely be available during November of this year. However, it should be noted most of these products were billed as coming out in August – so maybe plan on wearing different yoga pants for a while.
The Wide World of Smart Toothbrushes
While there are all kinds of things found in a bathroom that one could make smarter or more technologically advanced, the toothbrush is the beloved favorite. A quick Google search of the term “smart toothbrush” will pull up literally scores of options. Some are made by startups, some are made by giant names in the oral care industry like Oral-B, some connect to the internet, some offer real-time guidance on how to brush your teeth properly, some will keep records of how well you brush your teeth that you can then share with your dentist.
At least one smart toothbrush maker claims that it cannot only save your oral health, but can possibly also save its users from deadly heart attacks by scanning their saliva for the bio indicators that frequently precede them.
The first toothbrush, we should note, was invented in the year 3,000 B.C., and was basically a stick with a frayed end. Should the heart attack prevention toothbrush actually make it to market (a big "if" in the world of smart products, as it turns out), we believe it will officially win the award as history’s most improved over time product.
But until the toothbrush that can save your life becomes a household item, it seems the field of smart, connected and otherwise technologically enhanced toothbrushes all suffer from a common defect: Consumers don’t really like them that much. They are often reviewed as stressful to own, arduous to use and not a noticeable improvement over either analog brushes, or the standard electric brush.
“I understand that some people might want to take extra good care of their teeth, and maybe a connected toothbrush will help them do that. That’s fine. But I, a person who cares about their teeth but also doesn’t floss, can’t handle a Bluetooth pairing process," wrote one particularly impassioned reviewer for The Verge who found that a series of smart toothbrushes all made brushing her teeth harder than it had to be. "I also don’t bring my phone into the bathroom with me when I first wake up. Even if I do, I can’t get the setup right where I can brush and keep an eye on my phone at all times. That said, I love electric toothbrushes! Bluetooth is just a step too far."
Why Smart Also Has to Be Sensible
The common theme among the smart products that didn’t quite take the world by storm is that they tend to do better in the real world if they solve a problem for a customer instead of creating one.
All the technology in the world, as it turns out, can’t make any object “smart.” Smart technology also needs to have some common sense about what consumer actually wants – and needs – when they wire something up.