Brushing your teeth is one of the few experiences that hasn’t varied much over the decades, with the last radical innovation being the invention of the electric toothbrush in the 1950s. So I was thrilled when the Bluetooth-enabled Beam Brush (US $50) arrived, ready for review and promising a breath of fresh air in this most mundane of activities.
The Beam Brush would, I imagined, usher me into a new era of connected oral care and geeky grooming. It senses the mouth’s bioelectricity to record each “brushing event,” then sends the data to an app (iOS or Android) on a paired smartphone so I could track my stats over time. Toothbrushing may sound like an absurd thing to monitor in detail, but not to the growing market of “quantified selfers” who already wear devices that count the number of steps they take, the calories they burn, and the hours they sleep soundly [see “How I Quantified Myself,” IEEE Spectrum, September 2012].
To get the best out of the Beam Brush, I found I had to set my phone by the sink. The app’s 2-minute timer could then urge me on; my phone vibrated and chirped cheerfully every 30 seconds, displaying the message “Next quadrant!” A music function played the phone’s audio files while I brushed. It’s easy to imagine that kids might take more interest in their dental hygiene with these encouraging and entertaining features.
Unfortunately, in my twice-daily adult encounters with the brush, I found more difficulties than delights. The nonmotorized Beam Brush is awkward to maneuver: At 57 grams, it weighs slightly less than a regular electric toothbrush, but its tiny, manually operated brush head sits on a bulky handle that has to contain an AA battery and all the electronics. Moreover, as the Beam Brush’s lengthy instructions warn, the battery hatch in the back isn’t watertight. So I had to hold it at an awkward angle to ensure that foam didn’t accidentally dribble down the handle and leak in. My 2-minute brushing sessions went from a task that could speed by in a half-asleep state to what felt like a data-driven eternity.
The brush and its app can sync automatically if they’re near to each other; otherwise the data is stored on the brush (for up to three weeks) until you are ready to upload it by bringing the phone within range and pressing the brush’s one button. The app shows your average brushing duration and, on its calendar, which brushings you’ve missed.
But I couldn’t get much out of the stats, because I evidently didn’t treat the toothbrush with the care it needed when I packed for a vacation. When I unpacked hours later, the brush’s LED light was blinking angrily at me and wouldn’t stop. The instructions include a list of all the different things the brush’s flash patterns could mean, but the difference between a “blip flash,” “long flash,” and “slow flash” were lost on me. The instructions also point users to an online page that is supposed to provide “visual comparisons of the LED indicator,” but I got a “Page not found” error.
Taking out the battery would reboot the brush but also wipe out all my accumulated data. Meanwhile, it blinks on. My toothbrush is trying to tell me something, but I don’t know what. High-tech hygiene is considerably more complicated than I expected.
This article originally appeared in print as "Bluetooth Toothbrush."