The new word of mouth
The most personal mass-market gadget of all, the toothbrush, is being reinvented at the high and low end of the market, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
We all imagine that there can be no gadget that is more personal or intrusive than a cellphone. But move your focus ever so slightly and you come across an even more invasive device – and one that is not usually regarded as a gadget at all: the toothbrush. But ever since the first electric toothbrush was invented by the Swiss in 1954, this household object has become ever more closely associated with gadgetry.
Now, just as phones have given way to smartphones, electric toothbrushes have been taken to a new level, with the “smart toothbrush”. Oral B may not be as cool a brand as Samsung or Apple, and certainly won’t appear in as many headlines, but it also has a shot at revolutionising a routine task.
It has produced a toothbrush that costs more than R1700, which is a huge mouthful in its own right. But then, the Oral B Triumph 5000 is not your common or bathroom toothbrush.
It comes with a pressure indicator and “oscillating-rotating technology” that sends multiple brushes whizzing around your teeth at the same time. More significantly, it includes a SmartGuide “power toothbrush timer”, which offers – and this is not tongue-in-cheek – “an interactive personal cleaning coach”. The device links wirelessly to your toothbrush to monitor your brushing, and uses digital diagrams to tell you how long you should be brushing, on which areas to focus for how long, and how much pressure to exert.
Oral B has conducted scientific studies that show that users of the device are five times more likely to brush for dentists’ recommended two minutes twice a day. Moreover, 93 percent of users reduce excessive force when brushing, and 92% brush more thoroughly.
If you had a personal dental coach looking over your shoulder issuing instructions while you used a “normal” toothbrush, you'd also have those kind of results. But then, the SmartGuide is less intrusive than the human equivalent.
The main drawback is that both the toothbrush and the SmartGuide need recharging. Setting it up also demands you resort to the manual – a shock for those who are used to most gadgetry having become intuitive.
A field test revealed, though, that it really does work – your teeth feel cleaner and smoother. But the complexity of having to set up a toothbrush and link it to a different device is not to going to overcome the resistance many people have to brushing their teeth in the first place.
What will help is greater knowledge of the health benefits of keeping teeth clean. The World Health Organisation has shown dental disease can also bring on other illnesses.
As a result, a far more low-tech approach to dental health attracted much attention recently. At the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in the United States, one of the award winners was a South African schoolgirl who invented a device for sterilising toothbrushes in poor communities.
Chene Mostert of Ladysmith High School was inspired by a British study of how toothbrushes left in bathrooms were exposed to harmful bacteria. She collected toothbrushes from rural and urban areas, had them analysed by a laboratory, and found that all of them carried disease-causing organisms. The main problem was not only that they were kept in bacteria-heavy bathrooms, but that people in poorer communities often shared toothbrushes.
She then designed a low-cost steriliser that uses hydrogen peroxide to kill the bacteria and a rotating mechanism to rinse the brush.
The device was entered in the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, where it won not only the top award, but also an entry into the Intel fair in Pittsburgh. Her prize included $2000 from the American Dental Association Foundation.
“Kids are inspired by the environment in which they live,” says Parthy Chetty, Intel SA head of corporate affairs. “The challenge is to create projects that address real issues, and this one recognised both a need and the circumstances in which people live. It’s thrilling for me to see to this kind of work.”
It also proves that you don’t need to be hooked on expensive gadgets to reinvent the word of mouth.
* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee