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Toothbrushes that, along with an app, track your dental hygiene are coming soon. (Proctor & Gamble)

Just How Smart Can a Toothbrush Be?

Two companies compete to get the first smart electric toothbrush—complete with a smartphone app—on the market

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I don't know about you, but I always figured that I had pretty much nailed tooth-brushing by the second grade. Not that I brushed anywhere near as long as you're supposed to, or gave much love to the teeth in the back, but overall, this did not seem a tough concept to grasp. The tricky part was keeping dried-up toothpaste from clogging the tube.

But it turns out we apparently have much to learn about keeping our teeth clean. So much, in fact, that not one, but two companies will soon be selling what are being billed as the world's first smart electric toothbrushes.

How smart can a toothbrush be? So smart that Proctor and Gamble's Oral-B SmartSeries 7000, through a Bluetooth link to a smartphone app, is able to provide what the company describes as "real-time guidance" in acing this part of your daily hygiene. As you brush, your phone reminds you that this is not some 15-second glide-by; it's a job that requires a full two minutes of your time. Each of the four zones of your mouth is supposed to get 30 seconds of attention, and the app tells you when it's time to move on to a different one. It also lets you know, through a blinking red light on a timer, when you're pressing too hard. 

Of course, no matter how intent you are on following your toothbrush's directions, two minutes can seem a long time to stand over the sink holding a vibrating object. So, to keep you entertained, the phone app serves up a rundown of news stories and weather reports. And, if you do a good job, you get a congratulatory message about your "shining teeth." You can even create impressive charts to dazzle your dentist. (No PowerPoint yet, which is probably a good thing). 

Open Wider

Proctor & Gamble showed off the Oral-B 7000 at the World Mobile Forum in Barcelona last month—its first venture into the "quantified self" universe—but it was actually a month behind the unveiling of another smart electric toothbrush, created by a French start-up called Kolibree, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The Kolibree brush is the creation of the company’s CEO, Thomas Serval, who says his motivation was to find a way to encourage his kids to brush more often—and what better enticement than connecting what they saw as daily drudgery to a smart phone. 

As Serval told the Wall Street Journal, his company’s toothbrush includes nine motion sensors and an algorithm, designed by five mathematicians, to track which section of the mouth a person is brushing. It can record how long they brush, whether they covered all four quadrants of the mouth and whether they did it correctly—up and down, not side to side.

Like the Proctor & Gamble model, the app with the Kolibree brush can create nifty charts from your brushing data. But Kolibree is also inviting third-party developers to create apps that will add other features to encourage people to brush more often.

Unplugged

In truth, another smart toothbrush came on the market more than a year ago, a model produced by a Kentucky firm called Beam Technologies. The difference is that while the Beam brush has a sensor that sends data to a smart phone app, it’s not electric. It’s digital, all right, but it simply tracks brushing time and you still have to provide all the power.

Beam reportedly has an electric smart brush in the works, but its current version does have one advantage over the other two new electric products. It sells for about $25, while the two electric brushes are expected to cost four to 10 times as much, although neither is commercially available yet. The Oral-B is expected to go on sale in Germany in June, then in the U.S., and elsewhere in Europe later this year; the Kolibree brush should make its debut next fall.

There is no question that $250 is a lot to invest in a toothbrush. For that kind of money, you would think it could also find cavities. But the companies now in the smart toothbrush game insist the devices can dramatically change how we treat our teeth—that it’s only a matter of time before we wonder how we managed so long without our own little tooth trainers.   

Going Dental

Here are other recent developments in the tooth business:

Way better than “because I said so”:  Oral-B has launched something called the Disney Magic Timer App, designed to get kids to brush longer by turning it into a game. Every time they brush for two minutes or longer, another Disney or Marvel character is revealed to them on a smart phone app.

A gift that keeps on giving: Even the leftover leaves from the hops plants used to make beer can make us happy. According to research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the leaves are full of antioxidants that may help fight cavities and gum disease.

Good thing they didn’t brush for two minutes: Scientists are finding that one of the best ways to analyze changes in human diets and behaviors through history is through plaque remaining on ancient teeth. DNA testing of tartar, for instance, has indicated that humans began eating vegetables even earlier than fossil records indicate. One researcher, in fact, has described very old plaque as “a microbial Pompeii.”

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