Wed, Jul 02, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Smartphones to smart homes: hooking up our households

From intelligent thermostats to smart toilets and Web-connected toothbrushes, technology is making a bid to run our homes. Should we be worried?

By Oliver Wainwright  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

Your cooker might have a clever digital timer, and your fridge its own nifty little screen, but when the man who invented the iPod and the iPhone came to build himself a house, nothing in the appliance shop was smart enough.

“It was all just so dumb,” Tony Fadell says. “I’d spent my life working on ephemeral technology products, so when I came to build something permanent I was shocked. It seemed like nothing had moved on in the sphere of the home for the last 50 years.”

It was 2005, and Fadell was leading the development of the iPhone at Apple, while planning a dream holiday house for his young family in Lake Tahoe.

“I knew this device was going to become the centerpiece of our lives, and change the way we work and move around, so it became the lens through which I was looking at my home. What would a house look like if your smartphone became the primary way to control it?” he says.

Almost 10 years later, Fadell, 48, presides over a company that is pioneering what he calls the “conscious home,” turning something that sounds straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis into a very real proposition. His firm, Nest Labs, was acquired by Google earlier this year for US$3.2 billion, and this week he announced partnerships with a further host of global corporations, from Mercedes to Whirlpool.

Nest’s new developer program will see its intelligent, data-driven technology reach further into every aspect of our lives, from cars and washing machines, to lighting and fridges — with appliances that are not only hooked up to the Internet, but that can talk to each other. And it all began with a humble heating dial.

While designing his house, Fadell scoured every room to determine which part of the home had seen the least amount of innovation. And he hit upon the thermostat.

“It wasn’t about the panel on the wall, but about what it controls. In the US, heating and cooling accounts for half of all home energy bills, and in the UK it’s two thirds,” he says.

At the time, the most advanced thermostat cost several hundred dollars and came with a color touch-screen display that included a digital calendar and photo album.

“The technology wasn’t focused on what actually matters, ie, helping you to reduce your energy consumption and your bills,” Fadell says. “It just layered on all this useless, whizzy stuff. And it was really ugly.”

Leaving Apple in 2010, he spent time traveling in Europe, where he visited a number of so-called smart homes that were “even dumber” than their US counterparts, before returning to the US to establish Nest, and launch the Learning Thermostat in October 2011. An inky black circle that twinkles to life when you touch it, with the polished good looks of something straight from the Apple stable, the responsive thermostat was the first step in Fadell’s vision for the conscious home, monitoring and learning from the user’s behavioral patterns to second-guess their needs and desires. It turns down the heat when you are away, and knows when you like it warmer. It records your activity for the past 10 days and sends you an energy report every month. It even provides incentives, awarding “green leaf” brownie points when reduced energy targets are achieved.

“It’s a bit like a diet coach,” says Fadell, who speaks with the motivational Ted-talk sales patter of every Apple exec. “We help you to do things you want to do. We know what you’ve done in your home and can give you suggestions: ‘Hey, here’s a better way to save,’ or ‘You’re doing really well today,’ or, ‘Compared to your neighbors, you maybe wanna improve.’”

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