You might not want to pack a picnic lunch for this summer event.
Researchers from China, Switzerland, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and California have flocked to Seattle this week for the "Reinvent the Toilet Fair," a two-day showcase hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Forget the bathroom humor. This is serious sh*t.
In a YouTube video calling for a "toilet revolution," the foundation called for "new ideas to help reduce disease and find new ways to turn crap into valuable stuff, like fuel, fertilizer, and fresh water."
The problem was put succinctly by Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, in a tweet this week: "4 out of 10 people don’t have a safe way to poop - that’s 2.6 billion!"
Gates took on the mission of building a better toilet a year ago. As he recently told the Times of India, 1.5 million children die each year due to severe diarrhea caused by poor sanitation because they lack the kind of toilets that affluent countries take for granted.
"Finding a new toilet design that is as good as the flush toilet should be possible. It does not exist now," Gates said. "That's why we have been putting in money asking people to design a new toilet."
And not just any kind of toilet. As All Things Digital explained, "The toilets have to be hygienic and sustainable, discharge no pollutants, generate energy, recover nutrients and only need a tiny amount of water. Oh yeah, and they also need to have a cost of operation of a nickel per person per day."
Last year, the Gates Foundation awarded $400,000 in grants to eight universities to help them develop a better way to go. On Tuesday, the grant recipients gathered to report their progress.
"Two-hundred years ago we had the invention of the flush toilet and we've really not done anything in the engineering of the toilet since then," Carl Hensman, who heads the foundation's water sanitation and hygiene program, told MyNorthwest.com. He described one suggested method called "hydrothermal carbonization."
That's "a really big term that really represents a pressure cooker," he said. "What you do is take the fecal material and the urine and you'll essentially cook it under pressure and the material you get out of that has an energy you can use to fuel your cooker or you can actually use it as a fertilizer as well."
A team at Cal Tech wants to use solar power to break down feces and urine into hydrogen gas that could then be used as a backup power source at night.
At Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, scientists have another idea: microwave human waste into electricity.
Hensman said he hopes the various ideas can be combined to find one ultimate solution that can be put into practice in the field.
"There are pieces of each of their technologies that can be combined,"he said. "That's what we're really looking for is how can we pull everybody together to sort the solution out."
The Microsoft Kin smartphones debuted in April 2010. Marketed for teens, the devices were priced at $50 for the Kin 1, $100 for the Kin 2. Less appealing were Verizon's $70-per-month subscription plans, as were early reviews calling the devices "not smart enough" and "downright ugly." In June, Microsoft pulled the plug on the Kin family and focused exclusively on Windows Phone 7.
Launched in 2004, the Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) watches connected to Microsoft's FM radio-based network (MSN Direct) and delivered weather reports, news snippets, stocks and sports scores to users. Writes CNET, "Microsoft put a lot of money behind the Smart Watch and partnered up with Fossil, Suunto, Swatch, and even Tissot, which produced a high-end, touch-screen model that cost $800." Critics and consumers were not buying it, though. Washington Post reviewer Rob Pegoraro tested a $300 Suunto model and wrote the following: "[It was] too big, too ugly, too useless, too expensive (especially with a $9.95/month subscription charge for Microsoft's MSN Direct data service)." The devices were discontinued in 2008.
The Courier Tablet, leaked in 2009, was expected to be announced shortly before the iPad's debut in January 2010. According to rumors, the device would have featured two seven-inch screens that folded shut. However, this innovative twist on the tablet PC never saw the light of day. Microsoft instead unveiled a comparatively "underwhelming" single-panel tablet device called the HP Slate, which PCWorld called "a mediocre device" and "a big disappointment." By late April, both the Courier Tablet project and the HP Slate were tabled. UPDATE: A post written for the official Microsoft Blog in 2010 clarified that the Courier "project" was never an official Microsoft product. The statement read: "At any given time, across any of our business groups, there are new ideas being investigated, tested, and incubated. It's in Microsoft's DNA to continually develop and incubate new technologies to foster productivity and creativity. The 'Courier' project is an example of this type of effort and its technologies will be evaluated for use in future Microsoft offerings." The HP Slate was the result of a partnership between Microsoft and Hewett-Packard.
The first hand-held devices built on Microsoft's unique Ultra-Mobile PC platform launched to ample buzz in 2006. This new class of powerful mini-devices, which accepted pen and touch input, never caught on. The first U.S. release, the Samsung Q1, received poor reviews because of its hefty price tag ($1,099), buggy software, and odd keyboard design. Other releases suffered similarly.
Microsoft's answer to the iPod hasn't had a good run. The Zune's share of the mp3 player market peaked at 10%, slumping to 2% in 2009, according to Investor Place. Bloomberg reported that Microsoft would be killing off its music player due to "tepid demand" and cease releasing new models, though it would continue developing the Zune software. UPDATE: Microsoft announced on October 3 that it "will no longer be producing Zune players."
Microsoft's MSN TV (aka WebTV) was a service that allowed users to access the Internet via their televisions. The product, which may have been ahead of its time, was ultimately a flop, failing to attract more than 1 million subscribers. The Financial Times wrote of Microsoft's efforts, "Surfing the TV on a keyboard and web browser sounds about as enticing as pushing a rickety shopping cart across the plush carpet of a designer boutique."