I'm guessing that you've played a lot of video games using your hands. Well, how many have you played with your mouth? Probably fewer. Maybe none?
Well, that's all about to change if one startup has its way. Grush (short for "gaming toothbrush") is the latest in a still relatively short line of so-called "smart toothbrushes"—dental tools that sync with the user's smartphone or tablet to monitor his or her brushing activity to help develop better personal hygiene.
There have already been a few such brushes that have made their way onto the tech scene over the past year or so as internet of things-enabled devices have become more and more of a hot commodity at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. The Kolibree, a pricey new brush made by a French startup of the same name, got a lot of attention at 2014's CES for making a similar promise to turn "a mundane daily activity into a game," as CNN put it back in January.
But Ethan Schur, Grush's COO, still thinks that he can do gamers and teeth-havers one better. As he explained to me over the phone yesterday, most of the new smart toothbrushes may very well be "smart." But they're only gamified in the loosest sense of the term.
In other words: he doesn't think any of them are actually fun to play.
"Whether they have a flashing light or an app on your phone, they're all basically egg timers," Schur told me. "They're not making kids want to brush. At best, they're just teaching them how to do so."
And, well, parents and babysitters have already been doing that for a while now.
"They call it gamification, because they give you something you can mark on your calendar," Schur said. "Our focus is different. We're focused on kids, on the battle in the bathroom between parents and kids."
Toothy Orchestra is like Rock Band, except instead of syncing up toy instruments to on-screen actions you brush along different areas of your mouth in sequence.
Schur is coming to Grush after working for years in various parts of the video game industry. He spent a year working at Electronic Arts as build engineer. After leaving that job in 2005, he joined the marketing team at TDVision Systems, a company that he describes as "basically something like Oculus [VR], except it started in 2006." While attending CES in 2013, he met Dr. Yong-Jing Wang, the inventor of Grush.
The brush was still in a prototype phase at that point, but Schur said that seeing the thing reminded him of a problem he kept running into with his son.
"When I'd have him for the weekends, he'd always get to the house and say: 'Oh I forgot my toothbrush.' But he always had his tablet!"
Grush is an attempt to combine these two. The brush is launching alongside three free-to-play mobile titles made by Threadbare Games. They run on Android and iOS devices, and the brush comes with a universal cellphone holder that can be stuck on a bathroom mirror to hold it up while you're playing the game—i.e., brushing your teeth.
I haven't had a chance to go hands (and teeth) on with Grush, but Schur insists that they're all full-blown games that will satisfy any young mobile gaming fan. Monster Chase shows a CGI version of the player's mouth filled with bad guys that can only be defeated by brushing over them. Toothy Orchestra is like Rock Band, except instead of syncing up toy instruments to on-screen actions you brush along different areas of your mouth in sequence. Brush-a-Pet shows a tiny pet giraffe that can only be coddled by—you guessed it—brushing your teeth.
The project launched an Indiegogo campaign early this morning, and the pitch video gives a good idea of how the thing is supposed to work:
These three were made as part of an exclusive deal with Threadbare, and Schur added that his team already has another six titles they plan to release. They're also selling 100 copies of the Grush software development kit in exchange for a $360 pledge on the Indiegogo campaign to attract other developers to the cause. And while the first generation Grush is targeting children, Schur wants future versions—and their corresponding games—to be made with a more mature audience in mind.
"We're even talking about a toothbrushing MMO," Schur said, chuckling.
If playing The Elder Scrolls Online with a toothbrush sounds a little unorthodox to you, I'm right there with you. Developing control schemes and input systems that gamers will actually accept into their homes and lives is an inexact science at best. And if things like the virtual reality treadmill or Nintendo Power Glove are already too silly for many people to stomach, will anybody want a controller that goes inside their body? I suppose there are plenty of game-like devices that demand a full-body experience. But they're hardly fit for children.
"We're even talking about a toothbrushing MMO," Schur said, chuckling.
Usability and marketability questions aside, I often find myself playing the part of the cynic when it comes to these kinds of health and wellness-themed games. Because really: if we need video games to motivate us to do things as basic as attend to our personal hygiene or take enough steps in a given day, isn't the game just a symptom of a larger problem?
Late last year when I was writing a story about a mobile game that challenges people to walk more every day, I posed this question to Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His response seems relevant to something like Grush.
"Think of it this way," Selinger said. "If the difference between whether or not folks opt to be minimally active is decided by whether they have to walk as themselvesto improve their health or as characters in an existentially charged game who get around because doing so is the only way to save a simulation of the world, there's truly a significant motivational problem plaguing society. What's next, eat enough vegetables, or the princess gets eaten by a dragon? Take a shower, or the evil super villain will flood the city?"
We're not at showering yet. But brushing your teeth? That's getting pretty close.
It's disturbing that more than a decade into the 21st century, we're still reading stories about Americans dying because they can't get access to proper dental care. But could something like a gaming toothbrush really help solve that problem? As with many such "smart devices," it sounds more like the kind of thing perfectly designed for the kind of people that attend CES than those who stand the benefit the most from the potential innovation.
Schur told me that he ultimately wants Grush to play a part in larger public health initiatives. But before he can do that, he wants to help kids put a positive spin on brushing their teeth in the first place.
In typical tech entrepreneur fashion, that's something he thinks established dental institutions have largely failed at. At the end of our call, he told me about a poster he walked by recently that was part of the American Dental Association's new "2Min2X" campaign that, as the name suggests, is trying to get kids to brush their teeth for two minutes two times a day.
"The poster said something like: video games have a pause button for a reason," he said. "They're saying that you've got to stop playing games so you can brush your teeth. We're saying you can do both!"