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Fire drill: can Tony Fadell and Nest build a better smoke detector?

The Nest Protect eliminates annoyance — for $129

Nilay Patel editor-in-chief of the Verge, host of the Decoder podcast, and co-host of The Vergecast.

More than anything, I’m surprised it’s a square.

A square with rounded corners, Nest CEO Tony Fadell corrects me. Then the man responsible for the iPod and the Nest thermostat beams at me and delivers the line for his newest product. “Safety,” he says, “shouldn’t be annoying.”

He hits the large circular button on the rounded square in front of us. “Heads up!” it says in a calm female voice. “There’s smoke in the kitchen.”

This is the Nest Protect, a $129 smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Instead of simply beeping, it tells you exactly what and where the problem is, and you shut it up just by waving at it. It will last for years on six AA batteries, and ping your smartphone when they need to be replaced. And it serves as an activity sensor for the Nest Learning Thermostat, letting it more accurately adjust your heating and cooling as it learns when you’re home and away. It is ridiculously expensive — Amazon’s best-selling smoke detector costs $31 — and oddly beautiful. Particularly the black one, which dramatically sets off the multicolor LED ring around the button and lends a touch of ‘80s flair to Nest’s logo.

“We’re about reinventing unloved categories,” says Fadell. He can’t stop smiling as he shows the Protect to me. I’ve come to know that smile in the past two years. It’s how Tony looks when he feels like he’s made a winning bet.

Expanding the Nest

Nest burst onto the scene in 2011 with the Nest Learning Thermostat. Like the Protect, it was a much smarter rethinking of a mundane device most people have to have in their homes, and it was anything but cheap: it listed at $249, compared to something like $30 for a standard programmable unit. But it was a deal compared to the highest-end smart thermostats on the market, and it brought modern design and software to stagnant products designed for the simplest of problems: when to turn the heat and AC on and off.

The thermostat was an immediate hit, selling out repeatedly during its limited initial rollout, and over the past two years it’s become the poster child for a new wave of high-tech home improvement products — you can buy it in Apple Stores and Home Depot. It scared competitors so much that industry giant Honeywell almost immediately launched a patent lawsuit to push it off the market. A total of 18 software and service updates since launch have added major new features, an improved second version increased compatibility, and there's a robust grey market of imports around the world.

Nest has gone from industry disruptor to industry leader in two years flat, and now Fadell wants to do it again

And two weeks ago Fadell gave the keynote address at the massive CEDIA home technology show, where he announced a new API that allows the thermostat to be integrated into major automation systems like Control4. Nest has gone from industry disruptor to industry leader in two years flat, and now Fadell wants to do it again.

The Protect project started 18 months ago, shortly after the thermostat was launched. "We did a bunch of different options of different products," trying to decide on a second product, says Matt Rogers, Fadell’s co-founder at Nest and veteran of the iPod and iPhone. "We looked for areas that really lacked technology and innovation and had unbelievably frustrating experiences."

Maxime Veron, Nest director of product marketing

"Tony was the first one" to identify the smoke detector as an opportunity, says Maxime Veron, Nest’s director of product marketing, and another ex-Apple employee. "He was trying to go to sleep and he saw the red LEDs blinking."

Some quick research revealed astonishing numbers: There are 750 million smoke and carbon monoxide detectors installed in homes and light commercial spaces in the United States, a market three times the size of the thermostat business. Carbon monoxide detectors are now required in 25 states, with more passing laws every year. Most importantly, nearly two-thirds of fire-related deaths occur in homes without working smoke detectors, but the industry hasn’t responded — the familiar white plastic puck is basically the same as ever.

"The thermostat was the low-hanging fruit in energy. This feels like the low-hanging fruit in safety."

"We were just like, holy shit, this is super nuts," says Rogers. "The thermostat was the low-hanging fruit in energy. This feels like the low-hanging fruit in safety."

Tony asks me where my smoke alarm is and starts cackling when I tell him it’s sitting in a drawer, pulled off the ceiling because it inevitably goes off whenever my wife and I cook. "Every person I talk to has a story about how their smoke alarm went off or woke them up with a battery beeping," he says. "So you take it off the wall and you take the battery out and say ‘screw this.’ They hate the products."

But while I might hate my smoke detector, I’ve never thought about replacing it. And that’s really the challenge: while the Nest thermostat promised to save people money while increasing their comfort, the Protect just promises to be less annoying, keeping you safer in the process. Is that worth $129?

Fadell builds in intensity, sounding outraged that we’ve all settled for the same old smoke detectors. "The government mandates that you have to have one," he says, his voice rising. "So why not make something that you might love?"


Inside the Protect

There’s no ambiguous beeping or mysterious blinking LED on the Protect — the entire product is designed to more clearly communicate what’s actually wrong. When it senses rising levels of smoke, heat, or carbon monoxide, it simply says "heads up," and tell you what’s wrong — Fadell says they picked a neutral phrase to avoid panic if you’re just burning the toast. If there’s something more serious going on, the Protect gets straight to the point and says "emergency" while sounding a horn. Voices include British, Canadian, and US English, as well as Canadian French and US Spanish, and they’re localized: the "heads up" warning is "please be aware" for the British voice, and "attention" in French.

All the voices are female and quite soothing. "Studies have shown that children are less likely to wake up to a horn than the sound of a mother’s voice," says Fadell. Once you locate the problem and decide how severe it is, you can turn off the alarm by simply waving at the Protect, which senses the wave with an ultrasonic motion sensor.

If you have more than one Protect, they’ll all speak and let you know which one has the problem. Smoke in the bedroom? You’ll be told in the living room. The units communicate over Wi-Fi, as well as a secondary low-power RF system in case your network goes down. You can check status and get notifications from the completely rebuilt Nest app for the thermostat and Protect on Android and iOS devices, and in emergencies the app will display a What To Do screen with recommended actions and an emergency phone button. The one thing you can’t do from the app is shut off the alarm; safety regulations require users to do that in person.

"People have this guttural, emotional reaction to the white UFO on the ceiling. They hate it."

The Protect self-tests every 10 minutes and glows green at night to let you know it’s doing fine, and if you walk near one in the dark it’ll light up white to illuminate your path. If you have a Nest thermostat, it’ll use the activity and motion sensors in the Protect to more accurately program when it automatically turns your heat and AC on and off — a boon for people who work at home. And if the Protect senses a carbon monoxide problem, it’ll instruct the thermostat to shut off your furnace.

All of that is great, but I can’t stop asking about the square design, which features a "sunflower" pattern of holes on the front. It doesn’t look like a smoke detector at all — in fact, it looks like nothing so much as a smaller riff on MUJI’s wall-mount CD player. This is the first smoke detector you’ll want to pay attention to.


The Nest Protect and the Muji Wall Mounted CD Player (estimated comparison)

"People have this guttural, emotional reaction to the white UFO on the ceiling," says Rogers. "They hate it. We wanted something incredibly differentiated."

But the square design wasn’t all about standing out on store shelves. "We will rarely make a decision purely for aesthetics," says Rogers. "We’re not building art, we’re building well-designed products." With the Protect, that meant a sharp focus on one thing. "It’s all about air flow," says Rogers. "Maximum air flow."

Most modern smoke detectors work by shining infrared light through a smoke chamber and measuring the amount of interference in the air. Above a certain level, the alarm goes off. But Nest needed to measure a much wider range to support features like the heads-up warning, and that meant designing a custom smoke chamber and increasing the total air flow.

"It’s not enough to know, hey, there’s smoke in the room, sound the alarm," says Rogers. "We want to know when there’s a little bit of smoke, when something is going on. We designed much more of a dynamic range than any of our competitors ever would." The quest for air flow also means the Protect sits off the wall, with wide vents around the rear edge.

"It’s all about air flow. Maximum air flow."

It’s all very smart, but adding complexity increases the chance of failure — an unacceptable risk for a smoke detector, especially one that promises to be less annoying. So Rogers and his team designed two independent systems for the Protect: a smaller processor to handle the critical safety features, and a larger one to handle communications and intelligence. The two are connected over a serial link, and if the more complicated system goes down, the smaller processor will try to reboot it. If it fails, it’ll sound the alarm.

Perhaps most impressively, the Protect can run all these systems for "multiple years" on six lithium AA batteries. (Nest can’t quote a specific number due to regulatory restrictions; there’s also a hardwired version that uses three AAs for backup.) Nest has always had a formidable advantage when it comes to low-power devices given Fadell and Rogers’ history with the iPod and iPhone, and the Fadell is equally confident about the Protect. "We’re using incredibly low-power processors, the first time they’ve probably ever been used," he says. "We’re in the pico-amps."

There’s some clever power management at work as well: while the wired Protect is in constant contact with the Nest service, the battery-powered Protect only fires up its Wi-Fi radio for about a minute a day to check in with Nest’s servers and upload activity data for the thermostat’s auto-away feature. (The hardwired version is connected all the time.) But if something’s wrong, it kicks into full power and "just starts screaming," says Rogers.

Once the team had its first designs ready, they faced the biggest challenge of all: regulatory approval.


Sensing danger

"If you build an iPod or iPhone and it has a bug, it happens. People understand," says Rogers. "This product can’t fail." Certifying the Protect as safe required a grueling regulatory approval process handled by Underwriter’s Laboratory in the US and Canada and BSI in the UK that Rogers describes as "crazy rigorous" and Fadell describes as "incredible."

"If you build an iPod or iPhone and it has a bug, it happens. People understand. This product can’t fail."

Nest Protect being tested by UL

Going through the approval process has taken nearly a year so far, and it’s still not over; Nest anticipates it’ll be done in November. To speed things up, a team of Nest engineers is currently living in Chicago to be closer to UL’s testing site. "We’re in these rooms where they light different kinds of fires and gauge how long it takes for your device to alarm," says Rogers. "We probably did that hundreds of times. You have a [UL] engineer in the room and he’s like, ‘Your alarm better go off now.’"

UL was initially hesitant about the Protect’s various heads-up alarms and other alerts — the agency worried that additional alerts like the "heads up" would cause people to ignore the real alarms. But the Nest team was able to convince them that the additional information would actually make people pay more attention to the Protect. "At first it was like, ‘no way’," says Rogers. "Once we got them over that hump and they were on board, they tested heads-up just like they test the normal alarm."

But some concessions had to be made in the name of expediency. "It’s a multiyear process to get a sensor approved, so unfortunately we had to pick a CO sensor from the approved vendor list," says Rogers. "If the process was faster, we could probably get them a lot smaller."

Challenges aside, the Nest team is quick to praise the UL for its assistance. "It’s been a great, really strange, process, but now we have a partner we can work with," says Rogers. "This was a regulatory body, normally very slow moving, but they’ve met the challenge enormously."


Sensor invasion

One interesting side effect of the strict certification process is that Nest can’t advertise the Protect as being safer than other smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The competing models have passed the same tests, after all. So what you’re getting when you spend $129 on a Protect over a standard $25 smoke detector really is lack of annoyance — on an average day, you probably won’t interact with the Protect at all.

That’s a big change from the Nest Learning Thermostat, which invites constant interest — not only does it light up automatically when you approach it, but it turns saving energy into a little game by displaying a leaf icon when you pick an optimal setting. And there’s a lot of data to see and play with: I live 850 miles away from the three Nest thermostats in my parents’ home but I regularly check their status and energy history from my phone. They were expensive, but I can constantly see how much energy they’re saving — it’s a high-tech toy that also happens to save you money. And in aggregate, the data is so useful that Nest has developed a lucrative secondary business working with utility companies to manage power usage.

The Protect doesn’t offer that sort of stickiness.

Product marketing chief Veron nods knowingly when I bring this up. "Features like Pathlight and Nightly Promise came a bit later" in the development process, he says, referring to the LED ring that acts as both a white motion-activated guide light and a green self-test indicator every night. "We felt we needed more of an emotional hook to make it a great product."

"We don’t make toys," Rogers tells me. "We are working on things that are incredibly serious and important, but we’re adding an emotional value that things have never had before."

But while multicolor LED tricks are nice, it feels like Nest is missing out on some easy wins by building a second, mostly independent product instead of an extension of the already-successful thermostat. Yes, the Protect can help make the thermostat’s auto-away features smarter, but it’s baffling that it doesn’t also send temperature data to improve its efficiency. A version with a camera seems like an easy home-security win. The average 1,500 square-foot home needs three to four smoke detectors, but adding more Protects — and therefore more sensors — to a system doesn’t have any immediately obvious ancillary benefits for Nest owners.

"We’re starting where we start, and who knows what else can be added over time?"

"We don’t believe in sensors for just being sensors," Veron tells me. "We’re building sensors into products that have a value on their own." It’s hard not to get a Trojan horse vibe from the entire thing; surely Nest has a grand plan for this surreptitiously installed network of sensors.

If that’s true, no one’s saying so. Fadell, Rogers, and Veron all insist that their first priority is simply shipping the best smoke and carbon monoxide detector possible. "It’s such a regulated market that we would have failed our core promise to be a smoke and CO alarm" by adding too much, says Veron. Fadell is similarly blunt. "This is the product and we think it has incredible value as-is," he says. Our meeting is drawing to a close, and he’s giving me that winning-bet smile again. "We’re starting where we start, and who knows what else can be added over time?"

The answer to that question is almost certainly going to keep Nest’s competitors up at night. Heads up.