Nest Protect Is a Smoke Detector That Aspires to Be…Downright Pleasant

The thermostat startup rethinks a second mundane product category.

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Nest Labs

Ever since a startup called Nest Labs unveiled its smart thermostat in 2011 — with high-end industrial design, an elegant touch-screen interface, phone apps and other consumer electronics-style features — other companies have been releasing new-wave home automation products which use it as a role model. There’s Canary, the Nest of security systems. There’s August, the Nest of door locks. And so on.

And now there’s a Nest of smoke detectors. Except in this case it’s literal: The smoke detector in question is Nest Protect, Nest Labs’ second product. Shipping next month — and the subject of a late-September scoop by tech reporter Jessica Lessin — Protect aims to fundamentally rethink a category that’s even more boring than the thermostat. Co-founder and CEO Tony Fadell, best known in his pre-Nest days as the father of the iPod, recently chatted with me about it.

Today, the average smoke and carbon monoxide detector lists for around $60 and looks and works much like ones from a few decades ago. If you’re lucky, you’ll never actually need it to help save your life. But you probably will interact with it, and it won’t be a pleasant experience. The little devils love to go off when your cooking gets a little smokey, a false alarm you generally counteract by opening windows and/or frantically flapping a towel to clear the air. And when their batteries run low, most detectors nag you to change them with a loud chirping sound, which is — intentionally, as far as I can tell — ear-piercingly shrill and obnoxious.

Nest Protect will sell for $129 and be available in white and black models in battery-powered and wired variants, all of which are far more attractive than the hunks of cheap plastic most of us have fastened to our ceilings. It’s designed to be at least as helpful as a typical smoke/carbon monoxide detector when you need it — and a whole lot less annoying otherwise. As a ceiling-mounted device, it wouldn’t be practical for it to sport a touchscreen. So it uses a sound-based interface. But instead of chirping and buzzing, it talks. And if you have multiple Protects, they use Wi-Fi to communicate with each other, so every unit knows about a potential problem anywhere in the house.

The end result: A Protect in the living room might tell you, in a calm-but-urgent female voice, “there’s carbon monoxide in the den.” The spoken alert, Fadell says, isn’t just more pleasing to the ear than an alarm, but also safer: “Kids typically don’t wake up to horns. They wake up to a mother’s voice.”

If a Protect does mistakenly get agitated over something harmless like burnt vegetables, you won’t need to billow linens to shut it up: It’s got a motion detector designed to react to a gentle wave of your arm.

Protect uses its sensors in other clever ways. When you turn off the light at night, it checks its own battery and sensors and — assuming everything’s O.K. — briefly glows to show you it passed its self-test. And if it notices that you’ve gotten up in the middle of the night, it’ll double as an overhead night light.

Nest is also updating its smartphone apps to work with Protect as well as the thermostat: They’ll alert you to emergencies and low-battery situations, and give you advice on what to do if smoke or carbon monoxide are detected.

Tony Fadell demos new products about as effectively as anyone I’ve ever met — the time he spent in close proximity to Steve Jobs presumably didn’t hurt his skills — so talking to him about Protect got me excited. But even before he showed it to me, I admired Nest’s overarching corporate philosophy, which is to infuse product categories everybody assumes are mundane — if not downright unpleasant — with the same spirit of creativity we associate with the best gadgets. Fadell described it to me this way: “Let’s not try to go do some new thing. Let’s fix the problems we already have.”

The company’s thermostat has already proven enormously influential, not just by inspiring products in other categories but also by awakening slumbering giants in its own line of business. (Thermostat kingpin Honeywell is suing Nest over patents, but it also recently released a thermostat of its own with Siri-style voice control.) I’d love to think that even cheaper, garden-variety smoke detectors will get a little less irritating simply because Nest Protect exists.

Here’s Nest’s own video about its new product: