Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: 'Net-surfing in loo' story always stank

Microsoft admitted this week that its internet toilet announced on April 30, the iLoo, was a hoax.

Then the software giant did a backflip and said it was real again, "but not a product Microsoft is going to pursue".

The news was a gift to headline writers: "Microsoft dumps internet toilet idea - again" (Mercury News); "MS flushes out iLoo rumours" (the Statesman, India); "Software titan poo-poos iLoo" (New York Post); "Microsoft admits iLoo was a load of crap" (Independent Online, South Africa).

The original iLoo release, issued by the company's MSN internet division in Britain, said Microsoft was developing a portable toilet with a wireless keyboard and a height-adjustable plasma screen in front of the seat.

The iLoo reportedly was to debut at festivals this summer in Britain.

The fake release generated coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Associated Press, the last receiving confirmation of the project from both Microsoft's Waggener Edstrom public relations firm and London-based Red Consultancy, which handles some work for the software giant in England.

Theories abound on the net to explain Microsoft's change of heart.

Some say executives became squeamish with all the coverage.

"We didn't think the programme supported our brand in the way we want to support our brand," one executive said.

But another said: "I can confirm it was an April Fool's joke."

What's the truth? The Microsoft PR machine is sticking with the "it was a real idea but we dropped it" story. But I'm convinced it was a hoax gone bad.

My, er, bullshit detectors were on high alert the moment the iLoo story surfaced.

What gave it away? Well, besides thinking, if the idea was real, all sane life-forms on the planet must have been extinguished, I was troubled by hygiene.

I'm mean, really, who would "surf'n'squat" with a detachable keyboard on their lap?

Who would ever want to touch such a keyboard in even the cleanest public toilet?

But the story would not die. One Andrew Cubitt claimed that Microsoft had pinched his idea and iLoo name from a design he made and built in 2001 as part of a university degree in product design and engineering at Brunel University.

"Mine did everything that the Microsoft one is meant to do, but additionally printed information on toilet paper and didn't use a keyboard for the interface due to hygiene reasons."

Well, at least he had thought about cleanliness.

The madness of it all reminded me of a prototype futuristic bathroom system I saw in Tokyo last year at the Panasonic Centre, a high-tech showcase built around a dinosaur museum - yes, really.

It has a mock-up "2005 house" where you can see the "healthy toilet" - a porcelain-white oval bowl on a pedestal that automatically adjusts to suit your height.

It also automatically measures your weight, body-fat ratio, and urinary sugar and protein whenever you relieve yourself. The results are displayed on a thin LCD screen to one side and are stored in the home server for future reference.

But that's not all. If Panasonic is right, in the future we will live in a "ubiquitous network society" where the toilet seat, like all other household appliances, is connected.

So your vital statistics will be sent through the internet to your doctor or other health consultants for analysis and advice. Any worrying health signs will automatically alert your GP, who will quickly be on your cellphone with advice.

I've never understood people who like to take a newspaper or book into a toilet, and the thought of speaking on a cellphone while otherwise occupied horrifies me.

So does the idea of stocking this oasis of quiet with all manner of technology.

But perhaps that's the appeal. Here the world, albeit briefly, leaves you alone. In the high-tech version, comfort is assured by a heated, height-adjusted seat; cleanliness by water jets and blasts or warm air.

Health is guaranteed by monitoring bodily functions; communication by mobile videophone or email; and happiness by watching DVDs, TV or surfing the net - a haven we would never want to leave.

* Email Chris Barton

Microsoft changes iLoo story again

Panasonic Centre

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 23 Dec 2014 17:37:23 Processing Time: 550ms