Have data, live smarter. That’s the mantra of a new generation of connected products, from fitness trackers to finance apps. By measuring and aggregating your activity, whether it’s steps taken or money spent, “smart” consumer products aim to help you see patterns in your life, giving you the information you need to change them for the better.
Perhaps the most unexpected place smart technology has cropped up in recent years is in climate control. When the Nest thermostat debuted in 2011, it awoke a sleepy category with novel tech and sleek design, and got us to look at those round things sticking out of our walls not as ugly necessities but as beautiful lifehacking devices.
“Sensors and the data they generate are key, but they are really just a means to an end,” says Maxime Veron, director of product marketing at Nest. “Our approach is to take the data and turn it into information that customers can act upon.”
A thermostat is plugged directly into one of the biggest energy suckers in the home, so it’s hardly a surprise that using it smarter can lead to big savings. The question was how, and it turned out the answer was in technologies that had already become ubiquitous: smartphones, Wi-Fi and the Internet.
“The big inflection point was when everybody got the smartphone in their pocket and could access controls to their house remotely,” says Brad Paine, director of product marketing, software services for Honeywell’s Environmental and Combustion Controls Division. “Also, the convergence of the reliability of Wi-Fi and low-cost sensors. It’s really here now — the explosion of connected products.”
Intelligent Climate Control
Smart thermostats like the Nest, Honeywell’s and others work by gathering information about how you use them. Every time you adjust the device, it learns a little more about your habits and preferences. You can also give it a schedule and target temperatures if you want to get specific.
Of course, life doesn’t always adhere to a schedule. Sometimes you’re home or out when you didn’t expect to be, and stays and absences can often get extended. At the same time, your room-specific habits within a home are another layer of data that can help optimize climate control.
By adding certain kinds of sensors into the mix, those complications can become part of the equation. To some extent, a smart thermostat can do this already with simple proximity sensors — walk in front of it and it knows you’re home. But that concept can go to the next level, even geofence devices — that is, know whether or not someone’s home by detecting their cellphone.
Determining occupancy via cellphone is easy and probably reliable, although the data isn’t that granular. You don’t necessarily have room-by-room information, and there’s no data gathered about the home itself. For that, you’d need a network of sensors.
The Internet of Household Things
“When we look at these things, we first think about saving dollars and then saving pennies,” says Paine. “If we can identify when people are home and away correctly, those are big dollar savings. The next step is fine-tuning when you’re in the house and really optimizing it.”
The problem with deploying a sensor network in your home is that it’s potentially expensive, and the gains — the “pennies” side of things — aren’t as meaningful. However, there may be a way a sensor network could hitchhike into your house via other gadgets.
One example is Nest’s own Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Like the thermostat, it’s a device you need in your home anyway, so why not make it smart, connected and — what the hell — eye-catching. It’s essentially a big, beautiful sensor on your ceiling.
The Nest Protect is just one step down this road. Nest has also opened up its platform to developers so they can create apps and even hardware that can tie into the company’s products. The logical end point is a house in which every appliance and gadget “talks” to one another — an Internet of Household Things — sharing their sensor data and reacting to it, all without the cost or hassle of a whole-house installation.
“There’s a greater calling than just data and sensors,” says Nest’s Veron. “Having a feature is one thing, making a benefit from the feature is something different. There’s a lot that we can do on our devices today that we haven’t even unlocked yet.”