When Garthen Leslie was driving around Washington, D.C., during a heat wave last summer, the former Department of Energy IT exec noticed a disturbing trend: In the middle of the work day, air conditioners were running in apartment after apartment. "They must be running their air conditioner all day long to make sure their homes are cool in the evening," he tells Fast Company. "It's draining energy and draining money."
The observation inspired the idea for a connected window AC unit that can be controlled with a smartphone. Leslie brainstormed throughout the summer, but didn't have the know-how to manufacture such a device. When he learned of Quirky, a social design company that selects and manufactures invention ideas from the community, he submitted his plans. As part of a partnership with General Electric, Quirky started producing smart home products last fall for their Wink platform.
In January, CEO Ben Kaufman rang Leslie up, invited him to Quirky's office in Manhattan, and showed him an early prototype of what would become Aros. In the dead of winter, Leslie turned on the air conditioner, finally seeing his idea come alive.
In addition to being controllable via smartphone, Aros, which retails for $300, can also detect when residents are coming and going, so it can pre-cool the home or turn off the unit. Over time, it learns people's habits, predicting temperature preferences upon waking, during the weekends, and after work.
Plus, it looks good. "We thought it was a huge missed opportunity and really a shame that you're replacing your view out the window with one of the most hideous appliances on the market," says Quirky designer Adam Paskow. "We didn't want [Aros] to look like an appliance in your window."
Built atop an existing GE air conditioner, Aros features a front panel—the bottom right corner of which shows the temperature—with a clear injection mold overlay and a dotted pattern, which helps air intake, underneath. Overall, the effect is to mimic the look of glass. "We wanted it to be extremely clean on the front and something that kind of blends in and goes away," Paskow adds. Instead of forcing air through the front, he says it is more efficient to cool a room by blowing air from the top at a 60-degree angle.
Banking on this device as part of its summer lineup, Quirky poured marketing resources to promote Aros, including running its first-ever TV ads. In one of these commercials, Kaufman is seen rubbing Leslie's feet as he enjoys an iced drink—a nod to Quirky's inventor's community while pushing forward the message that Kaufman is the world's least important CEO. Last month, it teamed up with Uber to sell and deliver Aros to Manhattan residents on demand.
Still, the company admits Aros is still a work in progress. Consumer reviews have complained of fan noise, and Paskow says part of the problem is that its 8,000 BTU air conditioner is better suited for larger rooms. "A lot of people have the impression since we redesigned the air conditioner that we redesigned the internals of the AC as well, which, on this version we released, that's not the case," he says. The company chose to utilize an existing GE air conditioner because of its aggressive timeline to push Aros to market by May. But Quirky is retooling the innards, especially its fan components and structure (the primary noise culprits), for a quieter lineup slated next summer with different sized models.
Since roughly the beginning of time, people have found creative ways to keep cool: The Egyptians hung damp reeds in windows that cooled the air when a breeze came through, Romans used their aqueducts to circulate water through walls, the Chinese invented the hand-powered rotary fan, and if we go far back enough, our cavemen ancestors escaped the heat by living underground. But everything changed when the window air conditioner was introduced to American homes in the 1930s.
Once a symbol of luxury, the air conditioner became a household staple in the economic boom following World War II. The benefits aren't merely physical: Aside from increasing comfort, air conditioners help improve productivity among workers (a survey from 1957 considered it the single biggest boon to productivity) and decrease the risk of heart and respiratory diseases among the elderly as well as heat-related deaths. The invention was so electrifying that British scholar S.F. Markham in 1947 hailed it "the greatest contribution to civilization in this century."
Still, for such innovation, we've seen very little change in the design of standalone air conditioner units since they arrived at their bulky and boxy form factor. Browse a Home Depot today, and the appliances look strikingly similar to ones installed on window ledges decades ago: functional, but not the most inspiring. Some companies have taken note, and it appears the air conditioner is finally getting the makeover it deserves.
Which means that Quirky's not the only one in the smart air conditioner space. But some companies are taking a markedly different approach: attempting to turn "dumb" AC units into smart ones.
Home improvement chain Lowe's, for example, sells a $179 kit, comprising a small black box, that works with existing thermostats and individual air conditioners, as well as other household appliances. Partner manufacturers are also building standalone air conditioner units that will work with Lowe's Iris smart home platform, which can be controlled via computer, tablet, smartphone, and voice.
Iris is all about modularity, building atop Zigbee's and Z-wave's wireless standards for smart homes, used by General Electric, Honeywell, Schlage door locks, and more. "We're not making new devices," says Kevin Meagher, vice president and general manager of smart homes. "We're taking existing devices from our existing vendors and making our system support them. No consumer wants to open the door with one app, turn down the thermostat with another app. What we're finding is all of our vendors are sorting this out."
Modular sensors, such as motion detectors and temperature sensors, can be added to the platform, so Iris knows which rooms to target. "It's an intelligent system," Meagher says. "When you think about it, what's the point of heating and cooling the temperature of the hallway if I'm sitting in the lounge?"
Two blockbuster crowdfunding projects from the summer are following suit. Both Sensibo and Tado are aiming to manufacture accessories that can upgrade existing window, wall-mounted, and mobile air conditioners so they can be controlled by smartphones. "Air conditioners haven't changed much in the way we use them, with the same remote control, in the past 30 years," says Sensibo's chief technical officer, Ran Roth. The startup, which raised more than $165,000 on Indiegogo (more than double its $70,000 goal), is based in Israel, where air conditioning accounts for more than 60% of monthly energy bills, according to Roth. "It's a huge energy guzzler, and with our technology we can save about 40% of it."
After a year and about 15 prototypes, Sensibo arrived at its current design: a battery-operated stick-on accessory with temperature, humidity, iBeacon, light, and infrared sensors. The installation process requires no screws or heavy lifting, and the lack of wires removes restrictions on placement (i.e., finding a free outlet near the AC). Multiple Sensibo units can be deployed on a single network, and the accessory can be moved from one air conditioner to another. "One of the most important things is for it to be very, very simple for it to be installed," Roth says. "There are thousands of brands of air conditioners, and each of them have their own infrared protocol, and we spent a lot of time to support them. It just works out of the box."
Though the company believes it designed a better remote, it made sure not to forget about existing ones. They're still handy for grandma, who might not be sporting an iPhone, or for when someone wants to change the temperature while talking on the phone.
"There hasn't been a lot of innovation in this area, so most of the heating systems or air conditioners installed in houses were installed maybe 10, 15 years ago, and technology has moved quite a bit," says Tado CEO Christian Deilmann. The Munich-based company gained traction in Europe when it released a device in 2012 that lets smartphones control existing heating systems.
For both its heating and proposed cooling products, Tado focused on two things: the server side, which detects how far away a person is from home based on cell phone towers, Wi-Fi networks, and occasionally GPS, and the technology used to control the air conditioner. The app also learns the energy-saving (or depleting) features of a home, such as double-paned windows or insulation, to cool and heat efficiently.
Tado Cooling houses Wi-Fi, temperature, and humidity sensors in a square, slim form factor. Aside from adjusting the temperature, users can also set their desired humidity levels, which remains consistent even when a person leaves the home and the air conditioning turns off automatically. The accessory, which is estimated to be compatible with 82% of remote-controlled air conditioners, includes a capacitive LED screen that allows people to change the temperature and fan speed without a smartphone.
Both Sensibo and Tado plan to release APIs for developers to build their own applications. "We believe the future of connected devices is where everything talks to each other," Roth says. Since both companies use infrared to communicate with the air conditioners, theoretically, their technologies can be used to talk to any device that uses an infrared remote, such as TV sets and radios.
The ability to upgrade existing devices will appeal to price-sensitive customers, but some companies believe bold design is needed to transform the industry.
"In order to convince a consumer that it is different and it is better, it has to look different and it has to look better," says Quirky's Paskow. "Just slapping the functionality into an existing product won't make the same statement as redesigning it or making sure it's a product people find beautiful."
Needless to say, Quirky isn't targeting the run-of-the-mill consumer with a $300 air conditioner. "[Manufacturers] don't consider [air conditioners] worth their time to redesign because it's a very cost competitive market," Paskow says, noting that people shop for air conditioners when it's already uncomfortably hot. "We felt the value of [Aros] was worth that premium and more because of the design and also the cost savings."
The HVAC department at LG couldn't agree more. "How do we evolve this industry and take these expectations into consideration?" asks LG's spokesman Marc Zipfel. "The design and aesthetics will definitely take on more and more importance as the technology continues to expand."
LG's Art Cool line of wall-mounted units look nothing like traditional air conditioners. Just as important as its functility is its ability to blend into the home as a piece of art. The Art Cool Gallery, for example, doubles as a frame, along with a precut matting, so homeowners can show off their artwork. In March, LG released a new flagship model, the Art Cool Stylist, sporting a radical new design. "More and more consumers are looking for energy efficiencies, but they also want to keep aesthetics in mind," he said. "[The Art Cool Stylist] is fairly inconspicuous on the wall."
Mounted to the wall, the square air conditioner, available across Europe, North Africa, Russia, Mexico, and Brazil, features a minimalist and modern look. Though the Art Cool line is ductless, installation requires two contractors and about half a day of work. The ring of LEDs, technology borrowed from a sister group, can be adjusted so the color matches the mood or ambience of a room.
The air intake is located at the top of the Art Cool Stylist, and cool or hot air is forced through the other three sides. With the app, a user can specify not only the color of the LEDs, but also the temperature, direction of air flow, and fan speed. One drawback is that, unlike the Art Cool Gallery, multiple Art Cool Stylists can't be linked together. Still, Zipfel says reception for the product has been tremendous, and the company is weighing a launch in the U.S.
All this style doesn't come cheap though: The Art Cool Stylist has a base price of about 1,200 euros (US$1,623), excluding installation, and the cost varies country by country.
At its very core, the air conditioner is prized for its functionality, not its looks. It's possible that record-setting temperatures and rising incomes will push the industry to rethink the market—that in the not-too-distant future the section of home improvement stores dedicated to air conditioners will offer more than indistinguishable monolithic appliances. Already, the emerging alternatives look promising, appealing to customers at a variety of price points. But regardless of the form factor or design, it's clear the future of air conditioners will bank on the adoption of smart home technology.
[Image: Flickr user Jasleen Kaur]