NEW YORK – Artificial hearts and genetic research may be modern miracles, but the next step forward in medical science might be found in the bathroom.
A high-tech toilet being developed by an English company will analyze human waste for diseases, low fiber and pregnancy. It will even send an e-mail warning your doctor about potential medical problems.
"Nothing has happened in toilets for 120 years," said Terry Woolliscroft, a spokesman for Twyford Bathroom, the British company that plans to make the device. "Now, the toilet can proceed into the next century. It's breakthrough thinking, a complete change for the use of the toilet."
As proposed, the new Versatile Interactive Pan (VIP) will make the most significant change in the throne of indoor plumbing since 1883, when Thomas Twyford created the freestanding porcelain model we know today. The VIP will not only be voice-activated and water efficient — relying on vacuum to whoosh away waste — it will be adjustable, allowing people of all shapes and sizes to use it without discomfort.
"The toilet bowl sits on a movable plinth, which adjusts its height to suit the user," Woolliscroft said. "Someone with a certain religion or culture can adjust it so it goes right into the ground so they can squat. A kid can bring it low down as a squatter device, or it can be raised high for grownups or elderly people who can't squat at all. Or the latest thing is ... the ladies' urinal. It does look a bit Star Trek, but it is acceptable."
But it's the medical applications that have people clutching their pants in anticipation. Sophisticated devices inside the bowl will take urine and stool samples, analyzing them for health problems such as diabetes or colon cancer.
It's the kind of idea the toilet-forward Japanese have already pounced on. The Matsushita company has a prototype model that checks body fat and sugar levels. More common Japanese toilets include those that function as bidets, flip over and turn into sinks, play music and even make a pre-recorded flushing sound so you can camouflage the manmade music you might make without wasting water.
And that other engineering-loving people, the Germans, are exploring a similar idea to Twyford's in Vakutech's vacuum-employing toilet, which can test for pregnancy and the early stages of some cancers by testing wastes and gasses.
"The Japanese have gone further than most countries with their musical-devices toilet and toilets blowing hot air," Woolliscroft said. "Here in the U.K., we're taking a shot in the dark, if you like."
And for toilet experts, that shot has hit its mark.
"It's an idea of the future. It's really taking toilets as far as they can go," said Angela Lee, museum officer for the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, England.
And Lee knows her toilets. The Gladstone museum is home to Britain's internationally known Toilet Museum, which details everything you'd want to know about the most popular seat in the home. This month, the museum will include a mock-up of the VIP in its "Toilets of the Future" exhibit.
Twyford wasn't content to leave its innovations in the loo, though. If necessary, it will e-mail your doctor recommending an exam, or notify your supermarket you need an extra order of beans.
"Why shouldn't toilets be linked to the Internet?" Lee said.
But the chairman of the gastroenterology department at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., Andrew Warner, was skeptical of the VIP's practical medical uses.
"The person would have to be following a certain diet [to be effective]," he said. "I think it's going to result in a lot of unnecessary further testing."
But he said the idea had its merits.
"The main problem with doing stool samples is it's somewhat embarrassing," he said. "This might relieve some of that embarrassment, but would have to be inexpensive, disposable."
Cheap it isn't. Woolliscroft said that, when it's completed in four or five years, the VIP will sell for £5,000 (about $7,000), a hefty price for the average Joe's john.
But Lee was confident that the futuristic potty will make its mark on bathrooms everywhere.
"It's a bit like a sports car. They show the sports car and we all say 'Wow! That's what will be happening,' but we know in our hearts we'll be driving a more ordinary car," she said. "But of course, we all have computers in our cars now."