Smart public toilet requires QR code to access and rates the crap people leave behind

By Alma Fabiani

Published Sep 3, 2022 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Maryland-based startup Throne Labs has been working on a solution the world never knew it needed but will most definitely welcome with open arms: a QR code that tracks the cleanliness of whoever wants to access a public toilet. Let me explain.

Apart from Japan—of course it would be Japan—it’s a worldwide phenomenon for public restrooms to be found dirty, out of toilet paper, unmaintained and often not working properly. As you can imagine, chances of them being in such a state increase in big cities along with foot traffic, and on top of that, there’s not enough of them to go around in the first place.

That’s where Throne Labs’ smart, well, ‘Throne’ comes in—dubbed as “a smart, self-monitoring, semi-permanent bathroom that can be placed anywhere.” In other words, the portable, high-tech facilities are only accessible using a QR code generated on one’s smartphone, which tracks the level of mess you leave behind.

“Very few people create issues in [public] bathrooms, don’t respect that amenity, and then ruin it for the majority,” Throne Labs COO Jessica Heinzelman told The Washingtonian.

Throne users can also leverage an app to find a public toilet near them easily before swiping their code to gain access. Inside, they’re promised no less than a magical wonderland—clean and touchless germ-conscious utilities, a flush that actually works and doesn’t splatter everywhere, a mirror, trash can and a robust ventilation system. Heinzelman even shared with the US publication her hopes of #ThroneSelfies becoming a thing. What more could you ask for?

Well, if you’re like me and your Uber rating has been yo-yoing ever since the transport company introduced it in 2017—not because I’m an awful person, I’ll have you know, but because it seems like whenever I’m the one in charge of ordering a ride for a group of friends, being drunk and loud is their go-to move—you might be wondering how Throne Labs uses the powerful insight to determine its users’ ‘cleanliness score’.

The app not only asks users to provide feedback on any given toilet’s state, but it contributes to their personal ‘Throne score’ too. The bathroom is even smart enough to tell if you’ve been hogging the bowl for too long, thanks to some built-in weight sensors. Yep, let that sink in.

The group, which Heinzelman and CEO Fletcher Wilson launched in June 2020 alongside three other founding members, piloted its first round of Throne toilets in Washington DC in 2021 and recently installed its first semi-permanent Throne in Maryland in August.

But I couldn’t praise this technology without mentioning the obvious unfairness it will undoubtedly exacerbate. Knowingly or not (I’m betting knowingly), Throne excludes the people who need public toilets the most from using them: those without phones, who are almost certainly already homeless or on the margins of society. And that’s also ignoring the ones with dead batteries or those who don’t feel comfortable downloading an app that collects data about how they use the bathroom.

“The sanitation industry is one of those that has not really been touched by much innovation and disruption,” Heinzelman, who’s based in San Francisco, told The Washingtonian. And as lovely as squeaky clean toilets sound, maybe there’s a reason why this industry shouldn’t be disrupted by privately-owned tech companies.

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