Tech Review: Nest Protect Smoke Detector

November 27, 2013
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Nest is a company you’ve probably read about a lot without ever sampling what heretofore have always been their high-priced, but brilliantly designed products. Just two short years ago, CEO Tony Fadell, an ex-Apple whizz-kid and lead inventor of the iPod, raised a reported US$55m, according to Forbes, with a promise to transform the mundane thermostat which most of us use in some form or another into the next sexy thing! Since its October 2011 release, hundreds of thousands of people have bought the Nest thermostat for the hairball price of US$249. This eco-conscious device, which analyzes user behavior to minimize energy use, has thrived, albeit in a small elite universe. Spawning the obvious next big question: What would Tony do next?

Fadell’s Nest idea gestated at the point where it became simultaneously clear that his mentor, Steve Jobs, might be fatally ill and that his career as an engineer and designer leading the iPod and iPhone teams was hurting his family life.  After taking the family for a year’s sojourn in Paris, the Fadells returned to Palo Alto, and, while designing a second home from scratch, he found not much had changed holistically since the fifties. Fadell decided to go ‘technologically advanced’ and green: Connecting everything, he believes, from light bulbs to garage doors to be interactive, to your phone, to your computer at work in tandem with lower-priced new technology platforms like Wi-Fi and cheap chips and sensors will make everything perform better.

Nest Protect Smoke Detector

Coming in late November, the US$129 Nest Protect is a smoke detector. It looks ordinary. A white square with rounded corners and a sunflower pattern. Its job? If smoke or carbon monoxide reaches a government-specified danger level in your abode of choice, the Protect springs into action. Instead of some funereal keening noise, the device emits a vocal warning. Before you make light of La Voz remember that tens of thousands of folks intentionally disable smoke alarms because they get sick to the gills of alarms which go off as a sort of hair-trigger accompaniment to frying burgers and bacon. The solution is a pre-alarm heads-up. Nest Protect detects the problem before it reaches alarm-triggering levels and informs you, deploying its reassuring, yet authoritative prerecorded human female voice. Indeed, users can forestall the full-scale siren of the alarm with a simple wave of a hand under the device. When the air returns to normal, the voice delivers an all-clear message and the device glows green. This connects to the popular night light feature: Pathlight. As the unit detects someone walking, the ring at its center glows long enough to illuminate the immediate area. Fadell believes this feature changes the relationship between people and their alarms: Something activated only in time of stress becomes a nonthreatening presence guiding you to safety.

So: No more sheer heart-attack klaxon calls when none are necessary. No chance that you’ll hear that 2:37 a.m. whining that your batteries are low. As the lights go down at bedtime, its soft ring of light provides a status report. A green glow means all is fine; a yellow circle informs that it’s time to replace the battery. Nest Protect also intuits when a warning isn’t necessary. By analyzing sensor data (things like smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide levels), the system determines the situation for you.  A bathroom unit understands that steam from a shower isn’t anything to warn people about. However, if there’s a problem in the kids’ bedroom, every device in the house will tell you just that. “We’re about creating the conscious home,” Fadell told Bloomberg News. The unstated grand design of this is of hearth and home wired to connected devices which sense the environment, communicate with each other and you, obeying your unprompted preferences first.

Fadell also weighed price carefully. Experience-marketing the thermostat showed that people will pay several times the price of a conventional device for a sexy, high tech, high-performing alternative that connects to other high-tech devices. It hopes for the same with the Protect. At US$129, it costs far more than a simple smoke alarm, which can go for less than $20, and it’s still expensive compared to combo smoke–CO detectors, which typically cost under $60.  Fadell is counting on a long-term customer. Not a cheap one!

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