Maxime Veron, head of product marketing for thermostat maker Nest, is sitting across from me at our office’s kitchen table. As we talk, he deftly attaches a silver, circular object the size of a can of tuna to a small wooden board and puts a black cloth over it.
I’m either about to see the least surprising magic trick in history or be wowed by the marketing prowess for which Apple is known. Given that Nest’s founder is none other than Tony Fadell, the godfather of the iPod, I assume it’s the latter. And with a flick of the wrist, Veron flips off the black fabric.
With his Big Reveal, Veron unveils the second generation of Nest, a "learning" thermostat that marries Apple IQ with Frank Gehry-style design. The latest version of the device, which was first introduced last year, is 20 percent thinner than its predecessor, is controlled by a single steel ring around its shell, and boasts a sleeker face that has shed its black grid. Wiring modifications have made the thermostat compatible with a greater range of heating and cooling systems, and the company boasts that Nest will now work in 95 percent of homes equipped with low-voltage systems. At $250 a pop, Nest is also, like so many devices from Apple, at the upper end of what thermostats cost.
But the most exciting features have to do with what happens inside: Nest uses the power of data and intelligent algorithms to learn about its owners’ habits and teaches itself how to behave. It's part of a new breed of devices that don't just work, but think -- automating chores we once had to handle ourselves.
"We’re starting to give customers information they never had before," Veron said.
Say you like to have your home at a toasty 75 degrees when you wake up at 6 a.m. and your heater takes 20 minutes to kick in. Nest will give your heating system a nudge at 5:40 a.m. to ensure you’re nice and warm when you get out of bed.
The thermostat also automatically adapts to its surroundings to anticipate when to turn itself on and off, and the latest version of Nest is meant to be even more sensitive to its owners’ needs.
In its year on the market, Nest has collected considerable data from users that has helped it to learn more about people's routines. Recognizing that people generally leave the house at a consistent time each morning, the new Nest will activate its "auto-away" energy-saving mode 30 minutes, instead of 90 minutes, after it detects inactivity. It’s much harder to predict when a family will return home in the evening, however, so at night Nest will activate auto-away only after two hours.
By monitoring energy efficiency standards, the time that people leave the house, and the performance of a home’s heating and cooling systems, Nest can help users reduce their energy consumption and even diagnose problems with a home’s systems, Veron said. In addition to being able to monitor their energy use on a Nest app, which is now available for Android tablets, customers are given a monthly digest that graphs their heating habits and what their comfort costs them.
One of the thermostat’s selling points has been the "Nest Leaf," a small green twig that appears when owners are keeping their homes at an energy efficient temperature, which might be an unnoticeable degree or two below their ideal setting.
"We’ve seen families play the 'leaf game,' with kids literally wanting to be the one to turn down the thermostat to conserve temperature," Veron said.
He added that the Nest has been able to detect broken heating systems in places where users had just relied on less efficient back-up systems.
"Part of the energy report tip we’ll work on in the future is identifying issues and saying, ‘Guess what, it looks like the system is broken,'" Vernon said.
Nest’s big data can also offer big insights into how energy use and heating habits vary not just by household, but by region. For example, Nest charted minimum and maximum temperature setpoints across the country and found "distinct regional correlations." Frigid New Englanders, who pay more for heating, made do with "significantly colder setpoints than other states with similar outdoor temperatures," the Nest found. Eco-friendly Oregon, Washington and California residents also kept their homes cooler and "continue to be strong performers for energy conservation," according to the thermostat. A Nest Leaf for everyone!
CORRECTION: A previous version of the story stated that Nest promised its thermostat would work in 95 percent of all homes. The new version should work in 95 percent of homes with low-voltage systems.