Hack-A-Loo and other stories

Big news yesterday from Japan where an app-controlled lavatory has been found to be vulnerable to attack from potential app hackers.

The idea of the hi-tech loo is to allow control of flushing, a bidet spray, music and even fragrance release through the use an Android app. However a flaw in the hardware has been discovered that transforms any Android phone owner into a potential toilet terrorist: just download the app and, in a flush, you can control someone else’s loo.

The potential for practical jokes seems limitless, and no doubt the manufacturers of the smart toilet, Lixil, are deploring the developer who made the schoolboy error of hardwiring every toilet pin-code to be four zeroes (0000). But this rather humorous story does raise an interesting question.

Why are there currently so few remote and app-controlled domestic devices?

It is certainly not for the lack of technology, which has been available for years. Way back in 2001, when Redemption Media MD Dave Cates worked for BT labs, engineers successfully developed an intelligent fridge, which detected when supplies of milk, butter etc. were running low and automatically placed an online grocery order with Tesco to replenish the contents.

For a number of years it has been possible to use SMS messages to control some Sky PVRs, remotely instructing the box to record TV programmes. And yet despite the obvious usefulness of this functionality, it is not something that has caught on with other manufacturers.

There is so much potential for remote controlled devices; imagine a fridge and freezer that could send stock reports to your smartphone app so you can complete your grocery shop at work, or bedroom lights that you could control remotely whilst on holiday to make it look like you were at home. When I am leaving the office, it would be great to use an app to tell my oven to preheat so that it will be hot when I get in, or boil the kettle for an instant cup of tea. But whilst the software and communications technology is old hat, the materialization of these ideas is dependent on appliance manufacturers and their willingness to incorporate remote control technology into their products.

Development of these products also requires software developers to think creatively about the potential use of apps: we need to progress from apps that are purely for entertainment and social networking and move towards apps that can improve industrial processes and integrate with domestic machines. A move towards productivity apps will also give longevity to the app-development industry: it is clear that very few apps sold on the appstores generate any significant revenue for coders (In 2012, just 25 developers accounted for half of app revenue in the App Store and Google Play*) but partnerships with other industries have the potential to be far more profitable.

Manufacturing companies are missing a trick, but developers also need to be much more proactive in promoting the potential benefits of incorporating app-control technology into everyday appliances.

Now that smartphones are so ubiquitous, I am in no doubt there would be demand for an app-controlled version of most household appliances. Whenever you’re ready Hotpoint, I’d like to pre-order my iFridge.

If you have an idea for a connected app, please get in touch. We’d love to make these ideas into reality!