To see the future of your bathroom, you’ll need to head 60 miles north of Milwaukee. There, in the Rockwell-quaint company town of Kohler, just outside of Sheboygan, you’ll find the headquarters of Kohler Co. This 145-year-old manufacturer of, among other things, toilets, bathtubs and faucets, is bringing your entire bathroom online.
Underneath the foundry where the family-owned Kohler pours iron for its sinks and tubs, in a basement space previously designated to store scrap metal for salvage, is Kohler’s brand new Smart Home Experience Lab. The lab, which opened in October 2017, is comprised of a to-be-finished kitchen and three, 20-by-27-foot rooms, In one of those rooms, you’ll find a bathtub that’s hooked up to the internet.
In the same room, Kohler has a shower, a sink with a bathroom mirror and a toilet, all of which you can control with either an app or a voice command. It’s here where Kohler’s product team walks us through its new products.
When your door lock, your light bulb, your ceiling fan and your coffee maker are all online, it’s probably inevitable that your toilet and your shower will eventually be, too. Moen beat Kohler to market with an app-connected shower last year with its. Kohler had a shower with digital controls, but it didn’t have an app or Wi-Fi built-in. Today, with an app called Kohler Konnect and a collection of new and updated products, Kohler is announcing the largest suite of smart bathroom and plumbing fixtures on the market.
Almost all of Kohler’s new products work with Amazon, Apple and Google’s voice assistants. Its new Verdera vanity mirror has an dual microphone-equipped Alexa speaker built right into it. You can also use a voice command to set the water temperature in Kohler’s DTV shower system or the temperature and fill level in its PerfectFill bathtub. You can even use your voice to flush the high-end Numi toilet.
Behind the Kohler Konnect app, the company is also launching the Kohler Cloud, a back-end hosted by Microsoft Azure, that connects the app to the various bathroom products and voice services. While the internet services, circuit boards and other technological components of Kohler’s new product come from third parties, as Jonathan Bradley, a Kohler project leader behind the new bathroom products points out, the company still had to work directly with the voice partners to refine the user experience.
“These AI platforms don’t necessarily have a library built out for bathroom verbiage,” says Bradley. “Controlling our Numi and asking Alexa or Google Home to flush the toilet, traditionally the AI hears the word ‘flash,’ so it’s thinking about a camera. We did a lot of work with them around how to get the word ‘flush’ to be properly heard.”
“Even recognizing ‘Kohler,'” adds Rafael Rexach, Kohler’s design studio manager, “it thinks it’s ‘color.’ All of these platforms have had problems hearing words that are proprietary to us, like ‘Kohler’, ‘flush,’ ‘bath.’ Things that aren’t ‘hard’ words. ‘Shower’ works really well, because it’s ‘sho-wer.’ But ‘bath’ can be interpreted as ‘bad,’ and ‘bat.’ They’re learning a lot from us and the words we need to use.”
That work might lead to better understanding across voice assistants, and could even help with commands for products from Kohler’s competition. But despite the broader benefits, it’s hard to escape the fact that Kohler wants to install sensors and microphones in the most private space in your home.
“We want to be a brand you trust,” CEO David Kohler told us at the Beacon, the modern-looking office building that houses Kohler’s marketing division. “That’s a baseline requirement for us to play in this space. But, by the same token, our life is connected now. We have devices on our wrist, we’re living in a connected world. We’re learning how to use this [technology] and how it can really hopefully improve our lives.”