Nest Reinvents The Smoke Detector With Less False-Alarm Hassle

After the iPod and reinventing thermostats, Nest CEO Tony Fadell's next project is another device in the "unloved" category.

You know the drill: The smoke detector screams, people panic, arms and hands flail and someone with a towel furiously fans away smoke in the kitchen. Then you need a chair to reach the ceiling to hold down that impossibly tiny red button, which never seems to silence the wailing device. So you rip out the batteries--and maybe don't put them back for days or weeks.

Plus, now there's a blackened bagel in the toaster that was supposed to be your breakfast.

Tony Fadell, the founder of Nest and so-called "father of the iPod," can't save your bagel. But he just might save you from the fire alarm hassle. And his new device might even save lives.

"People are so frustrated by smoke detectors: They say, 'I took a shower and it went off; I cook and it goes off; and [its dying] batteries wake me up in the middle of the night,'" Fadell says. "They cry wolf all the time--that's incredibly annoying."

Video courtesy of Nest

Today, Fadell introduces Nest Protect, a reinvention of the smoke and carbon monoxide detector that eliminates many traditional pain points. Like the company's previous product, the Nest Learning Thermostat, the team has brought its design savvy and mobile thinking to what Fadell refers to as another "unloved category," meaning a space that has been severely neglected by innovators over the years. "The smoke alarm you grew up with looks the same as it does today," he says. Not Nest's alarm. With its light sensors and color cues, voice- and gesture-based interactions, and smartphone syncing and elegant form factor, Nest Protect feels like an Apple product, even though, in lots of situations, it's a government-mandated appliance.

After you've experienced Protect, it's hard to understand why other systems aren't designed the same way. It's not just that it's aesthetically pleasing, though with its rounded corners, sunflower pattern, and simple color contrasts, the $129 device, which will come in black and white, is indeed elegant. The product's functional features steal the show--many of which were inspired in part by Fadell's own frustrations using traditional smoke alarms. "After you burn the toast, the first thing everyone does is wave the towel around to move the smoke," Fadell says. "We were like, 'This should be much easier.' "

Instead of grabbing a towel? Just gently wave your hand in the air three times to silence a false alarm, also called a nuisance alarm. Fadell's team has installed ultrasonic sensors to detect your hand motion. No need to flap the smoke away; it's as if you were saying goodbye to the annoyance. "We call it the wave hush, like, 'I hear you, it's all good, it's hushed,' " Fadell explains.

The solutions come from Nest's understanding that there are gradients of alarm. Historically, alarms had one notification: They were either blaring to signal danger, or silent (and potentially battery dead). Nest Protect is essentially always communicating with you, in varying degrees of urgency. In the center of the device, a color-coded ring will grow red if there is a smoke or CO emergency. Otherwise, it'll glow green when all is safe and the device is powered properly, and yellow when there is a smoke or a CO warning or when Nest has a message for you. When you turn off the lights in your house, the Nest will quickly glow green to signal that everything is safe and working for the night. (Cleverly, also at night, Protect doubles as a path light: It glows brighter as you walker underneath it and will dim as you walk away.)

The device also speaks to you. Rather than only sound like a nuclear meltdown is about to occur, Protect tells you what's really going on: "There's carbon monoxide in the den," the system might announce. Or: "Smoke is clearing in the kitchen." According to Fadell, the system checks that its own sensors--which include photoelectric smoke, CO, heat, light, and activity sensors--are working properly, and it will let you know if they're not and why. "If there is an emergency, we don't just want to beep at you," Fadell says. "It's about providing safety and information."

What's more, because Protect is Wi-Fi enabled, the system not only can sync with your smartphone but with other devices throughout your house. You can get updates on your iPhone, say, for any issues at your house, whether you're there or not, such as early signs of carbon monoxide, low-battery alerts, and so forth. (In the event of an actual fire or carbon monoxide alarm, Nest's app will even give you instructions on who to call.) And if you have a Nest thermostat, the two devices will speak to each other: If Protect senses a carbon monoxide leak, as a precaution, the thermostat will immediately shut off your boiler or furnace, common sources of those leaks.

Despite all the features, Fadell promises that the battery-powered version of the device will get "multiple years" off of a single charge; there's also a wired version with a backup battery system.

Like the thermostat space, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors represent an unusual but incredibly untapped market for a Palo Alto-based startup to go after. According to Fadell, there are 35 to 40 million smoke and carbon monoxide detectors sold in the U.S. every year. Fadell argues the space is sorely in need of innovation, citing a National Fire Protection Agency study that found that of "smoke alarms that failed to activate during home fires, 73% of them had dead, missing, or disconnected batteries." The leading reason they were disconnected? Nuisance alarms.

When there really is a serious fire though--and not just another case of the boy who cried wolf--Nest Protect can't be waved off or easily silenced. In that case, Fadell says, the system needs to keep chirping, too, if there is reason for alarm--in fact, his company is legally obligated to make it do so.

But the company has also installed a button to turn the alarm off--often that dreaded, last-resort option to silence many false alarms. Even there, Nest made strides to improve the design.

"It's insane to me how all of these other things have really little freakin' buttons on them!" Fadell says. "We made a nice, really big button that -- boom! -- you can hit if you need to. You could even hit it with a tennis ball."

[Images courtesy of Nest]