By Leslie Walker
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page E01
Technology is literally going down the toilet -- the digital toilet, that is.
A Japanese firm drew belly laughs from a conference of high-tech executives here this week by showing off a computer-controlled toilet it recently began selling in the United States. The $5,000 Neorest from Toto, already popular in Japan, automatically raises and lowers the lid, flushes the bowl, deodorizes the room and even replaces toilet paper with a water sprayer called a "personal cleansing system." You push buttons to control the degree of heat and water pressure for cleansing your "under carriage."
"Within the next 10 years your typical experience in the bathroom will be a thing of the past," Toto's Lenora Campos proclaimed at "D: All Things Digital," a three-day technology conference sponsored by Dow Jones & Co.
Americans may laugh, but more than 60 percent of Japanese households already use some kind of automated cleansing system, Campos said, making digital toilets more popular in that country than microwave ovens.
Another speaker described how technology is changing bathroom habits in South Korea, too. Geesoing Choi, president of digital media for Samsung Electronics, said his bathroom in Seoul is equipped with a big-screen TV. "I cannot stop my temptation to watch the news, even in the shower," confessed Choi.
Choi and Campos were two of the more comical presenters at an event where even chief executives seemed playful when they were throwing rhetorical darts at each other. One theme they explored was the state of innovation in the information technology industry, which, judging by the half-dozen new gadgets shown, seems to be reviving -- if haltingly -- after a prolonged downturn.
If the mood felt playful, it also seemed more get-down-to-business than at the same confab last year. This year, the entrepreneurs and tech titans seemed reenergized and confident about the future.
Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates kicked off the event Sunday with a talk in which he seemed more relaxed and personable than usual. Yet his hyper-competitive streak showed when the subject turned to his company's latest arch rival, which he seemed reluctant even to name: Google.
Gates said Microsoft has been working to create its own Web search technology and will roll out the capability at its MSN Web service next month. He dismissed Google's much-praised relevancy formulas as "nothing we can't do." He acknowledged, however, that Google has had a "galvanizing effect" on his company's efforts to improve Web search and claimed that would help consumers in the long run. In order to woo users away from Google, Gates said it won't be enough to match the quality of its search results: Microsoft will have to do better. "That's what we've got to do," he vowed.