Cyber Culture: 'Bathroom of the future? I draw the line at a pile of old paperbacks'

  • @rhodri

Thanks to ubiquitous gadgetry, the living room and the bedroom have become social hubs as friends, acquaintances and total strangers invade our digital space. Even the kitchen isn't immune, with the internet-enabled fridge constantly threatening to become a reality. But when the information overload becomes too much to bear, there's surely one place – aside from a remote cave in Azerbaijan – where you know you can be alone and that's the bathroom.

Not for long, though. A report by "trend forecasters", the Future Laboratory, reveals that 24 per cent of British people wish that their bathroom could be more sociable.

I've no idea who these people are, but emerging technology is facilitating their wishes, while the 76 per cent of us who'd rather defecate alone howl in protest.

That's the paradox throughout the report; trimming nasal hair isn't an activity that's traditionally accompanied by diary juggling, Scrabble playing or indulging in light flirtation. But the "last room in the house to respond to social changes", will inevitably see a revamp as every surface gains the capacity to display or collect information. Among the innovations listed in the report include bathroom mirrors that dispense shaving tutorials and shower curtains that use e-ink to bring rugby scores partially obscured by shampoo.

Some of the technology is fantastic, it's true: programmable toothpaste flavours, tactile showers that mimic car washes and malleable vertical surfaces that allow you to instantly create shelving. But the assertion that the bathroom is "the obvious entertainment centre" doesn't really ring true. I'd draw the line at a pile of dog-eared paperbacks.

Mobiles join forces, but will it mean double the coverage?

Admitting to other people that you currently have a poor mobile phone signal will inevitably provoke the question: which network are you with? Regardless of which one it is, your interrogator will say, rather smugly: "Oh, I have great reception, I'm with such-and-such," before waving a screen in your face, showing four or five bars and a 3G symbol, as opposed to your measly one bar and the dreaded circle denoting 2G only. Vodafone customers have traditionally been the most haughty, having long enjoyed a reputation – whether deserved or not – as the leading network for coverage in the UK. But in the next few weeks, Orange and T-Mobile customers are finally being allowed to probe each other's 3G spots, changing the shape of data coverage in the UK.

The two networks came together last year under the banner "Everything Everywhere", although this was something of a misnomer. T-Mobile customers could only get a 2G data connection on an Orange network and vice versa. In fact, phones seem to prefer connecting to a strong 2G signal on the alternate network than a slightly weaker 3G signal on your own; infuriating, particularly if you don't have a clue where you are and you're attempting to use Google Maps. But where will this put the merged companies in the league table? "Our own study shows that O2 is currently the leading network for 3G," says Ernest Doku at, "although Three has also been overhauling its network for the better part of a year. Whether T-Mobile and Orange become 'the best' will depend on the speed of transition between the networks, the maintenance of high data download speeds and duration of the roll-out." The switch is already rumoured to have been made in certain parts of the Midlands. Let us know how it's working for you.

Flourishing fantasies when games meets social media

Life-simulation game The Sims has been knocking around for well over 10 years, establishing itself along the way as the best-selling PC game series ever. But, while the concept is old, the success of The Sims' newest incarnation, Sims Social, shows that it still has huge appeal. Since its launch on Facebook in August, it has zoomed up the social gaming chart to second place, leapfrogging Zynga's cultivation simulation Farmville and leaving only Cityville ahead of it. With well over 60m people playing the game every month, its makers – Electronic Arts – are posing the first real challenge to the Facebook might of Zynga.

It's immediately obvious why Sims Social is so popular on Facebook. While Cityville and Farmville have social elements, Sims Social actually requires Facebook connections to progress through the game. You and your friends each control a single character in this parallel world of virtual friendship, where your Sims hang out together in a brow-furrowing simulacrum of real life, complete with eating, bathing and flirting.

Your Sim might make romantic overtures towards the Sim of someone you're besotted with in real life, creating layers of profound social complexity and potential awkwardness. What's fascinating is how compelling this alternate world seems to be – almost as if it's offering another chance when real life has disappointed us.

Reality, it seems, is not enough.

Who'd want to wake up and smell the hard drive?

In 1999, Wired magazine ran a cover story that heralded the arrival of digital odour: a company called Digiscents had just made the bold and incorrect assertion that its USB personal scent synthesiser, the iSmell, would be the computer peripheral of the 21st century. Designed to add an additional sensory dimension to websites and shaped like an air-vented cyber-tusk, it never reached the marketplace and Digiscents folded two years later. But what's this at last week's Lisbon Design Show? It's the Smellit, another personal scent synthesiser. The French company making it, Olf-Action, does have some previous smell-successes under its belt. For example the "Diffuseur olfaciné 4045" system for cinemas, which comes with a range of cartridges including "Ambiance Hôpital" and "Odeur de Cheval". I'm not sure we really need to know what Facebook smells like (I'm guessing a crowded commuter train).