Smartwatches Track Our Health. Smart Toilets, Too.
Commodes that measure your health and might even diagnose Covid-19 are in the works.
Commodes that measure your health and might even diagnose Covid-19 are in the works.
The next frontier of at-home health tracking is flush with data: the toilet.
Researchers and companies are developing high-tech toilets that go beyond adding smart speakers or a heated seat. These smart facilities are designed to look out for signs of gastrointestinal disease, monitor blood pressure or tell you that you need to eat more fish, all from the comfort of your personal throne.
“All of the things that have come with smartwatches and phones, you can imagine that on another scale,” says Joshua Coon, a bioanalytical chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Morgridge Institute for Research, who published a 2019 study exploring the potential of continuously monitoring a person’s health by looking at molecules in their urine samples. “You could really start to understand disease risk.”
Doctors have long used fecal and urine samples for clues to people’s health, but there has been a renewed interest in recent years as scientists have begun to better understand how the microbes in our gut influence our well-being. In the Covid-19 pandemic, more communities launched wastewater surveillance initiatives, enabling health officials to hunt for early signs of the virus in cities and neighbourhoods and track its spread.
Some researchers want to harness that wealth of information on the individual level and have come up with models to peer into the toilet bowl remotely. Some smart toilets are geared toward helping doctors monitor patients with chronic conditions or heightened risk for certain diseases, whereas other companies aim to sell the toilets—with price tags in the hundreds or thousands of dollars—directly to consumers as a tool to track or improve their own health and wellness.
Researchers at Stanford School of Medicine have outfitted a toilet bowl with cameras and trained a machine-learning algorithm to analyze the waste against a diagnostic chart. The toilet can also track the flow, colour and volume of urine. It is equipped with a urine test strip similar to a pregnancy test that detects specific molecules that can provide insight into a person’s health. To tell users apart, the toilet has both a fingerprint scan when a person flushes and a scan of their anus’s characteristics, or an anal print.
The Stanford team has signed an agreement with Izen, a Korean toilet maker, to manufacture the toilet. They hope to have working prototypes that can be used in clinical trials by the end of this year, says Seung-min Park, who leads the project, which was started by Sanjiv Gambhir, the former chair of radiology at Stanford, who died in 2020.
Another prototype smart toilet developed at Duke University also deploys cameras and machine learning to analyze waste after it has been flushed. It uses other sensors to capture consistency, presence of blood and specific proteins and extracts a small vial of stool that can be shipped off to a lab for further analysis. The smart toilet, along with others in development, is designed to connect with an app on a person’s phone.
“[You could] get personalized alerts for having more fibre or avoiding certain foods to avoid flare-ups,” says Sonia Grego, founder of the Duke Smart Toilet Lab and Coprata Inc., a startup that she and two other team members launched in 2021 to commercialize the technology.
A remote smart toilet could help doctors monitor patients with chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or spot early signs of disease, says Dr. Grego. Another plus is that it could allow for frequent measurements that can be tracked over time, which could be a more effective, non-invasive way to track certain metrics and quickly identify and flag changes than sporadic readings during doctor’s visits.
“What your blood pressure is at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday doesn’t matter. To get that information with real trends behind it is super valuable,” says Austin McChord, the chief executive of Casana, a home-health monitoring startup working on a toilet seat that can measure vital signs including blood pressure, blood-oxygen levels or heart rate.
The company said in February that it had raised $14 million in Series A funding and is working toward getting clearance from the Food and Drug Administration for the seat to measure a handful of vital signs, Mr. McChord says.
Some diagnostics experts argue that the value in a smart toilet would come from being able to analyze the molecular substances in patient samples and that other devices, including smartwatches, can easily monitor blood pressure and heart rate. Mr. McChord and others working on smart-toilet technology say that advantages to using a toilet seat over another wearable device are adherence and ease-of-use.
“If you want someone to use something, it has to be incredibly simple,” says Chad Adams, president and chief executive of the company Medic.Life, which is working to get FDA clearance for its Medic.Lav smart toilet. “Everybody has to go to the bathroom.”
Medic.Life first plans to sell its toilet to assisted living facilities, where it could help track residents’ vital signs, bodyweight or even the sugar or sodium levels in their urine, among other metrics, before expanding to general consumers. A future version for assisted living facilities, pharmacies and healthcare providers would diagnose certain infections, such as urinary-tract infections or Covid-19.
Google LLC also has a patent for a toilet seat that doubles as a cardiovascular monitor, filed in 2015, although it isn’t clear whether the company is pursuing the project. Google Health declined to comment. Toilet maker Toto is designing a toilet that could analyze people’s waste and provide recommendations to improve wellness, such as drinking more water or adding something to their diets. The company anticipates launching the toilet in the next several years.
Toilet makers say that their products can provide medical-grade results for some vital signs and urine tests, but a smart toilet that can analyze the broader chemical makeup of waste is likely further off. Developers will have to work out how to prepare samples for analysis and refill the chemicals needed to run the reaction, as well as make the toilet cost-effective, biochemists and diagnostic experts say.
Another key barrier is privacy. A 300-person survey conducted by the Stanford team found that one third of respondents were uncomfortable with the concept of a smart toilet that collects health data, with many citing privacy as a chief concern. Respondents were especially uncomfortable with the camera-based approach. More than half, however, were at least somewhat comfortable with a smart toilet.
“I have now heard every toilet pun or joke you can imagine,” Casana’s Mr. McChord says. “A toilet seat is something that everyone is going to giggle about, but you have that moment to explain what it really does, and people really do see the value there.”
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Passionate about both decor and travel? Design industry pros are leading global tours to share their secret shopping sources—and help you score one-of-a-kind pieces.
WHEN MELANIE BURNS of Oklahoma City first entered the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, she was stunned by its sheer size and the pathways winding through its tented structures like a tangle of yarn. Though well-traveled and an old hand at hunting one-of-a-kind objets, she’d never experienced such an onslaught of potential riches. “The bazaar is intimidating,” she said, “the size of about five football fields.”
She had expert allies, however: Clare Louise Frost and Elizabeth Hewitt of Tamam, a lifestyle brand and Manhattan store specialising in Turkish antiques and their own collections. The duo led Ms. Burns to a shop layered deep behind other shops. “It was no more than about 14 feet square, and stacked high with the most beautiful hand-woven vintage tapestries I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Burns recalled. “I would never have tackled the place without these women. They are walking encyclopedias, they speak the language and when you shop with them, you don’t overpay.”
Ms. Frost, who calls the bazaar “her second home,” lived in Istanbul for nine years, and her business partners, Ms. Hewitt and Hüseyin Kaplan, still live there. Together they host trips to Turkey, capped at 14 participants, all eager to buy décor to take back home. Overseas shopping sprees like this are an increasingly popular new category of travel. Interior-design pros immerse travellers in a country’s culture and guide them to fabulous finds, whether an ornate vintage camel bag from Turkey or a contemporary French sculpture.
Indagare, a travel company in Manhattan, is seeing a growing market for overseas shopping trips. The 30 Insider Journey trips it ran in 2022, including seven design-centred jaunts, drew 540 travellers, twice as many as in 2019. Sicily, Japan and Mallorca are locales Indagare is eyeing for future design trips. Penta, a magazine that, like The Wall Street Journal, is published by Dow Jones & Co., has a partnership with Indagare to organise trips.
“Covid taught us we need to go when we have the opportunity,” said Grant K. Gibson, a San Francisco interior designer who himself has led eight trips to India and two to Morocco and is adding excursions to Egypt, Mexico and Turkey.
Trips are as cultural as they are commercial. Before Mr. Gibson’s group of 10 globetrotters start looking for linens or bargaining for bowls, they tour Jaipur by electric rickshaw and visit a textile museum. “I want them to understand the history and know where design ideas come from,” he said. Cynthia Smith, a biotech exec from San Francisco who traveled with Mr. Gibson to Morocco, came home with pottery in a vibrant green glaze unique to Tamegroute, a village that edges the Sahara. “Everyone asks me about the vase, and I have a story to tell about Tamegroute pottery,” she said. “It gives character to my house.”
The packages don’t come cheap—from around $4,000 to $18,000 (not including flights) depending on location and length—but offer you insider access. Designer Chloe Mackintosh of Boxwood Avenue Interiors in Reno, Nev., is leading her first trip this year to parts of Italy and France she knows well. One focus will be the weekend antique markets in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, in southeast France, but she’ll also introduce guests to local artisans, including a fifth-generation ceramist. Her group will take a pottery-making class to understand the process behind the product.
Known as “the huntress” because of her many years buying and selling vintage furniture, Ariene C. Bethea says people began asking her to lead a trip so they could hunt alongside her. The owner of Dressing Rooms Interiors, a shop and design studio in Charlotte, N.C., teamed with TrovaTrip to create a journey to the Paris flea markets this May. With Ms. Bethea’s input, the Portland, Ore., group-travel managers lined up accommodations, vendors, translators and tickets to museums. “I plan to help my guests shop, give them ideas and help them learn to tell stories in a space,” said Ms. Bethea, known for her playful use of colours, bold patterns and culturally inspired designs.
Lodging on these guided forays offers design cred, too. Ms. Mackintosh has reserved an entire 16-room château in the French countryside for just 12 people. Tamam’s Istanbul guests stay in a marble-floored hotel that was a late 19th-century Ottoman bank—with a vault that doubles as a wine cellar—and for excursions to Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey, they bed down in a traditional cavelike home carved out of soft rock.
On a trip to the South of France with Los Angeles-based designer Kathryn M. Ireland, visitors stay in Ms. Ireland’s farmhouse near Toulouse. Her trademark fabrics and colourful Bohemian and English-country style are on display in every bedroom lamp shade and living room chair. “Guests shop my house, and then I point them in the right direction to buy similar things,” she said. Ms. Ireland has been leading groups (a maximum of 10 people) for over a decade, taking them to neighbours’ villas, antique markets and out-of-the-way bakeries and bee yards.
Abby Landers first visited Ms. Ireland’s home as a high-school senior, traveling with her mother. Now five years out of college and living in Boston, she recently returned. “Kathryn embraced us, and she has been a mentor for me ever since.” Inspired by that first trip, Ms. Landers earned a master’s degree in interior architecture, and her current boss is someone she met on that trip. “You’re there for a week, and it’s a whirlwind of meeting artists and artisans, all friends of Kathryn’s.”
Kirstan Barnett, a tech investor from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., traveled to Tangier with Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare. Ms. Barnett was particularly moved by dinner at the 300-year-old, whitewashed, riad-style residence of Jamie Creel and Marco Scarani, two of the many designers she met at private events. The home was so richly layered and eclectic, she said, it inspired her to approach her own décor more bravely and reject the notion that a room must adhere to one style.
Some pros who organise such tours offer itinerary planning to folks who don’t want to travel with strangers. Mr. Gibson recently created a program for a group of four going to Jaipur. Though he won’t be joining them, he’s chosen the lodging and booked the restaurants and the experiences.
Travelers laser-focused on in-the-know shopping minus the touring can hire Chicago-based Skin Interior Design in cities such as London, Paris and Milan. The company arranges excursions so clients are shown exactly what they want—whether French midcentury chairs or Venetian-glass chandeliers. “We have an education in art history and antiques, and we help find pieces that keep value,” said Lauren Lozano Ziol, one of the founders. A recent two-day antique-furniture and art expedition in London cost $10,000.
How to get all the booty home? Mr. Gibson advises guests to travel with at least one empty suitcase. Bulky items can be packed and airfreighted home using DHL or FedEx. (Most carriers will pick up at the hotel.) Some vendors ship direct to the States from their stores at reasonable rates. For those who travel with Tamam to Turkey, easy shipping—including having your purchases collected from the vendors—is one of the perks. Ms. Burns, who bought ceramics, four suzani bedspreads and six rugs, said Tamam handled shipping for about $400. “Some of my things arrived before I even got home,” she said.
Five 2023 trips abroad devised and helmed by interiors experts imparting their insider info
Ready to shop your way around the world? Here are just some of the available packages that focus on home design. Prices are per person and generally include accommodations, meals and beverages, guided touring, activities and local transportation.
The owner of Dressing Rooms Interiors, a vintage-home-furnishings boutique and design studio in Charlotte, N.C., Ariene C. Bethea takes travellers shopping the Paris vintage markets and art galleries and on visits to lesser-known museums such as the Museum Nationale Gustave Moreau. Also on the agenda: a foray to Versailles and its gardens, a tour of Montmartre street art and a tasting at the Museum of Wine. From $3,649, Trips.TrovaTrip.com
Chloe Mackintosh, owner of Boxwood Avenue Interiors, a Reno, Nev., studio and shop, leads a 4-night trip in Florence, Italy. Travelers stay at the five-star Il Salviatino, a restored 15th-century villa that mixes Renaissance and contemporary décor. Along with shopping excursions, antiquing and a workshop at a local artisan’s studio, the trip includes wine tasting and cooking lessons. Florence, from $5,500, Learn.BoxwoodAvenue.com
Designer Clare Louise Frost, Tulu Textiles owner Elizabeth Hewitt and carpet dealer Hüseyin Kaplan teamed up to create Tamam, located in Manhattan and Istanbul and specialising in antique and vintage Turkish textiles, rugs and ceramics. Travelers tour Istanbul, Konya and Cappadocia, shopping the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar and visiting textiles and antique dealers. Plus: a hot-air-balloon ride and cooking class. Tamam in Turkey, from $3,600, Shop-Tamam.com
In London, South African interior designer Serena Crawford guides travellers through Kensington Palace’s Sunken Garden (Diana’s favourite) as well as shops such as heritage brand Fortnum & Mason. In the university town of Oxford, architectural highlights range from medieval to modern, and in the bucolic Cotswolds, guests visit private homes and gardens of renowned interior designers. London & the Cotswolds with Serena Crawford, from $15,350, Indagare.com
Los Angeles-based designer Kathryn M. Ireland takes you on private museum tours, flea market hunts and a trend-spotting tour of design fair Maison et Objet in Paris (ticket not included), followed by leisurely days in the French countryside at her farmhouse outside Toulouse. Paris & La Castellane, from $7,900, Paris hotel not included, KathrynIreland.com
San Francisco interior designer Grant K. Gibson shares his passion for India with a guided tour of Jaipur and Taj Mahal. Participants stay in a guesthouse once part of a maharajah’s gardens; enjoy traditional Indian feasts; learn the history of block printing; rendezvous with rescue elephants; and conquer the chaotic bazaar, comprising flower and spice markets and rug and textiles vendors. Travel with Grant from $9,500, GrantKGibson.com
The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.
The iconic bootmaker is now solely in local hands.