Speak, shower and shave: Kohler brings smarts to your bathroom
Kohler wants to put Amazon's Alexa in your bathroom mirror and bring your toilet, your tub and your shower online.
Rich BrownFormer Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
ExpertiseSmart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
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 U by Moen shower control system. 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
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
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."
"Because of the intimacy of the bathroom space, you want to be careful and you want to preserve privacy, but at the same time, it can be an area where you can enjoy a lot more convenience. It is a really important room for people. You like to rest, relax, rejuvenate, prepare for the day, rest in the evening as you're preparing for bed. You want technology for the right reason there, to make your experience better."
You'll have to wait for your next bathroom remodel to decide if Kohler's technology belongs in your home. For now, here's everything Kohler is announcing today.
Verdera Voice Lighted Mirror
Kohler's Verdera line of lighted mirrors gets a new model enabled with Amazon Alexa. The mirror will be released with an Alexa-enabled speaker built into the bottom and encased to protect against typical bathroom water use. Dual, front-facing microphones listen for voice commands, while touch controls adjust sound and light levels. LEDs power two vertical light strips on the mirror's edges. Night light features provide soft light, and motion sensors beneath the mirror raise light levels when someone stands in front of it. The mirror will be available in three different sizes and price points and is slated for a March release.
The Verdera mirror is clearly the centerpiece of Kohler's connected bath, being the only product with Alexa built-in. The remainder of Kohler's tech-infused lineup works with Alexa skills and the Kohler Konnect app, but doesn't house the Alexa assistant. Voice commands for filling the bathtub, starting the shower, flushing the toilet, or hearing the news all work with the Verdera mirror. The remainder of the products on this list are due for release in 2018, with no specific date or pricing information announced so far.
Kohler's latest bathtub aims to take the tedium out of running a bath with smart commands for water temperature and fill level through the Kohler Konnect app or a voice command. The tub's drain will plug and begin to fill once the running water reaches the requested temperature. The water will stop running when the tub reaches the specified fill level. In addition to water temperature and fill level, voice and app commands are also available for hydrotherapy and vibracoustic soundwave settings.
DTV+ Showering System
Kohler's signature line of high-tech showers is also getting the Kohler Konnect treatment with the newest version of the DTV (digital thermostatic valve) shower. This line of personalized shower systems has been around for more than a decade, and allows you to set your shower to a specific water temperature and flow rate, among other options. Now, with the Kohler Konnect app and Kohler's Alexa skills, you can control each aspect of the shower, including water temperature, pressure, music, lighting and steam through voice commands.
You can also save personalized shower settings, allowing a command like, "Alexa, turn on Molly's morning shower" to activate preset shower conditions. Current owners of Kohler DTV showers will be able to upgrade to the connected version with an accessory module.
Numi Intelligent Toilet
Kohler's top of the line toilet is now connected. The Numi delivers hands-free flushing, bidet cleansing, feet warming, air drying, odor control, music, a night light and automatic seat temperature management. With the Kohler Konnect app, you can customize these features, create user presets and even ask Alexa to flush. Numi's wall-mounted control panel is still an option for physical control.
Sensate Kitchen Faucet
Kohler is introducing a new version of its Sensate kitchen faucet with Kohler Konnect integration. The smartened version allows you to monitor home water usage and dispense water at a specific temperature and volume level using voice commands and touchless, motion-based interactions.
PureWarmth Toilet Seat
If you aren't in the market to replace your bathroom fixtures entirely, the PureWarmth toilet seat provides a custom heated seat with Kohler Konnect app-controlled settings. This standalone toilet seat can be attached to your current toilet, and will likely will be much more moderately priced than the rest of Kohler's connected products.
Touchless Response Toilet
Kohler's newest touchless toilet flushes manually with the traditional handle, but it also includes a touchless option powered by a motion sensor just above the handle. This isn't the first wave-to-flush toilet Kohler has manufactured, but rather an improvement on previous designs where the motion sensor was on the top of the tank. The team at Kohler think this touchless toilet makes hands-free flushing more intuitive.