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And Now, a Few Words From the Urinal

Richard Deutsch, an electrical engineer and former chiropractor, has come up with an invention that looks like a hockey puck with mesh wings, is sensitive to changes in light and has a tendency to go off with even the slightest bit of movement, which can prompt red flashing lights, crunchy guitar chords and a commercial announcement.

The most notable detail, however, is its intended placement: in the urinals of public restrooms.

Dr. Deutsch's marketing creation, the Wizmark, which he calls an "interactive urinal communicator," is one of several new technologies to have intruded into the men's room.

At the National Basketball Association finals in Detroit this year, liquid-activated urinal mats proclaimed "Beat L.A." One Minneapolis-based firm, AllOver Media, has installed 15-inch liquid-crystal-display screens above urinals in Minneapolis and Indianapolis, and plans to do so soon in Manhattan.

In a media-saturated world, advertisers have apparently seized one of the last frontiers. Once the advertising pitch begins, "let's face it, there's no place to go," Dr. Deutsch said in an interview at his house and workshop here. "You literally have a captive audience."

Dr. Deutsch has enlisted two major customers for his creation: Viacom, which plans to deploy the devices in bars in the next few weeks to promote Country Music Television, and Molson, the Canadian brewer, which is using them in several cities in Quebec.

Still, the product leaves potential advertisers with a serious conundrum. "I can't see someone wanting their brand name urinated on," said Tony Jacobson, a pioneer of restroom advertising and the president of AllOver Media, the company behind the L.C.D. screens above urinals. But some companies disagree with that notion.

"The truth of the matter is, you can't take yourself too seriously with this," said James A. Hitchcock, vice president for marketing at Country Music Television. "And we see this as unapologetic and good-humored. It has this wink-and-smile mentality to it."

But still, aren't these things annoying? "Asynchronously, if three or four go off, it's cacophonous," Dr. Deutsch acknowledged. And yet, this talking, flashing, squawking invention will be so insidious, he reasoned, that it cannot be ignored.

As the founder and director of Healthquest Technologies, Dr. Deutsch, 58, has invented products like a battery-powered hand-held massager and a rotating plant hanger (the latter provides "uniform sunlight exposure").

There were several obstacles to overcome before the Wizmark came to market. First, he had manufacturing problems in China, where standards, he said, are slack. Then the speakers were too loud, so he had to create a thicker plastic casing. And then there was the splash factor, an issue better left unexplained.

As for any danger of electrical shock from the device, which is powered by two AA batteries, he said: "At three volts? I don't think so."

Looking ahead, Dr. Deutsch is exploring ways to make his creation read chips on ID badges. "It'll be able to say, 'Good day, John, how are you doing?' "

Dr. Deutsch is also working on a version that will fit inside a toilet bowl. The details aren't all worked out, but he remains confident. "I can promise you, it's coming for women," he said. "Like it or not."

 

Jonathan Miller, The New York Times. September 30, 2004.

Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.