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Simplehuman has seen the future, and it’s full of robot trash cans

Frank Yang’s quest to make the humble garbage can more beautiful and effective–and, at $80 and up, more expensive–has its naysayers. So far, he’s proven them wrong.

Simplehuman has seen the future, and it’s full of robot trash cans
[Photo: courtesy Simplehuman]

It’s early in the morning. You come down sleepily, and sit at the kitchen table to drink your coffee and eat your toast. You’re entirely alone–except for all the devices around you that are patiently listening to see if you’ll talk to them. Like the trash can a few feet away from you. “Open, can,” you say. Miraculously, the trash can opens, and you toss your paper towel into it without leaving the comfort of your chair.

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Welcome to the future of your home. Except this future isn’t very far away. Simplehuman–the nearly 20-year-old company founded by industrial designer Frank Yang and famous for its sleek stainless steel trash cans–has already developed a line of voice-activated trash cans, one of which the company is launching today at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

[Photo: courtesy Simplehuman]
On the surface, the new can looks like any other Simplehuman can, with its rectangular shape and glossy exterior. But after you’ve either inserted batteries or plugged it in, it proves itself to be smarter than most other trash cans. The other difference is the price: At $200, the voice-activated trash can is significantly more expensive than Simplehuman’s step-operated cans, which start at $80 for one of comparable size without the bells and whistles.

If you saunter up to the device, it senses you’re there and opens up. On the other hand, if you walk briskly past it, it recognizes that you have no intention of throwing something away and stays closed. If you don’t want to walk over at all, you can say “open can” and it will open. The brand has several use cases in mind here: For instance, you might be sitting on a chair nearby. Or you might place the can next to a counter or cooking station, and find it easier to voice-activate the can so you can easily dump scraps of food into it. The idea is to cut a few steps out of your everyday trash disposal process, which don’t sound like a big deal–until you count the number of times you walk over and physically open your trash can every day.

[Photo: courtesy Simplehuman]
Simplehuman has been working to perfect the technology for years now, developing its own, proprietary operating system rather than syncing with an existing personal assistant like Alexa or Siri. The brand released a version of the can a year ago, but has been tweaking the design over the last year to improve it. For starters, Simplehuman increased the number of microphones from one to three so that it’s able to more accurately understand people when they speak to it. And after gathering customer feedback, the company created even more trigger commands, including “stay open” and “close can.”

“We wanted to put out what we felt was a highly effective version of the can into the world with our first version,” Yang says. “But we are simultaneously working to keep making it better.”

For Yang, this smart trash can seems like the logical extension of his decades-long obsession with improving the ugliest everyday products we surround ourselves with at home. Most trash cans purchased today remain an afterthought. They are generally plastic vessels that are entirely pragmatic, and meant to contain the dirty, smelly detritus of our lives.

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[Photo: courtesy Simplehuman]
In the late 1990s, Yang began to believe it was possible to improve these items with more elegant design. He describes himself as a perpetual tinkerer, someone who enjoyed jerry-rigging cars and taking apart household objects then reconfiguring them to make them work better. As a political science major at UCLA, he had taken an industrial design class, which he loved. When he graduated, he immediately began to create trash can prototypes. His father gave him $200,000 to help him launch his own company, Simplehuman, and send the first trash cans into production. The very first can he made was a stainless steel model that was far more beautiful than what you’d find in an average store. But at two to three times the price of a generic plastic Rubbermaid or Hefty can, it was unclear whether there would be a market for it.

It turned out there was. By 2017, Simplehuman was generating $220 million in annual revenues. Yang quickly got the Container Store on board with an order of $30,000 in trash cans, which led to retailers like Target and Ace Hardware stocking their shelves with Simplehuman products. “Many people thought the idea of a premium trash can was crazy,” Frank says. “Nobody believed people would pay $40 or $100 for something you throw your garbage into. But they were wrong.”

Likewise, the idea of a $200 trash you can talk to seems a little silly. Is it really so hard to walk a few steps to throw away your trash? Is it so painful to step on a foot pedal to open a trash can? The answer to both of these questions is, obviously not. But Yang explains that the point has never really been to totally reinvent the trash can. It’s to make them incrementally better, from their design to their functionality. After all, you will look at the thing, and use it, every single day. He believes such small improvements add up–and ultimately make your life better.

Since Simplehuman launched, it has expanded into a wide range of categories, all of which add a touch of elegance and efficiency to things very few designers spend much time on. Take the humble toilet plunger and toilet brush. Yang has tackled those, too, creating shiny, stainless steel versions that retail for $25 and $30, respectively. They’re double what other brands charge, but not totally unaffordable to some consumers who are now used to paying more for home appliances and smart devices like the Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo, or the Nest.

The brand has made popular dish racks, paper towel holders, and grocery bag dispensers. It recently created a hands-free soap dispenser that senses that your hand is there, releasing liquid or foam soap, the way you might at a nice public restroom.

But the brand’s breakout product over the last year was a series of tabletop mirrors that range between $130 and $300.

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Simplehuman’s mirror senses that you’re in front of it, sending out exactly the right amount of light to mimic natural sunlight. It was designed to make it easier for women to do their makeup in the morning. But when professional makeup artists discovered the utility of the product, it began to spread through the industry, becoming a must-have item. It’s followed much the same trajectory as Dyson’s $400 Supersonic hair dryer, which many professional hair dressers purchased because it allowed them to do their jobs more effectively.

[Photo: courtesy Simplehuman]
The newest version of this smart mirror, which also launches today at CES, comes with Airplay and Google Assistant built into it, allowing it to play music, and get traffic, weather, and news while you’re doing your makeup. It might seem like overkill for a mirror, but for its target users, these are valuable tools. Many professional stylists like to have music playing as they do their makeup, which can sometimes take hours. And for women doing their makeup at home before work, it makes perfect sense to have the news playing in the background.

“I’ve always thought it was worth it to try to improve the design of simple, everyday products, because in the end, they have the biggest impact on someone’s everyday life,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s just about pre-empting the users’ needs, and including features we think they would appreciate. If they don’t, we can always go back to the drawing board and tweak the product again.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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