Smoke detectors are cool again!

October 10, 2013 6 min read
October 8, 2013 ~ By Austin Carr

Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest, aims to do for the smoke detector what he did for the lowly thermostat: Turn it into a home gadget everyone covets. Here's a rundown of Protect's cleverest fixes.

Last summer, as Tony Fadell was diving deeper and deeper into his next big skunkworks project, the iPod inventor decided to completely give up on his initial plans and start over from scratch. "It wasn't cool enough; it wasn't emotional enough; it looked too techie; it looked too geeky," Fadell recalls of the early prototype. "So boom! I blew it up, and we redesigned it all in two weeks."

What was Fadell designing? A smoke detector, that boring, government-mandated household appliance that hasn't changed in decades. Yes, Fadell truly believes fire alarms should evoke emotion and a sense of cool. As the CEO of Nest, the company behind the brilliant Learning Thermostat, Fadell has shown a knack for applying his Apple DNA to what he refers to as "unloved" and "overlooked" things. His latest product is Nest Protect, a modern smoke and carbon monoxide detector, which is the best example yet of Fadell's ability to bring magic to the mundane.

We've covered what makes Nest Protect tick . Here's a rundown of the device's smartest interactions and cleverest fixes--the ones that feel so intuitive and obvious that it's remarkable they weren't the industry standard in the first place.


It happens to all of us: The shower was too hot, or you left the eggs in the pan too long, and the fire alarms begins to shriek. The immediate next step: "The first thing everyone does is wave [a] towel around to move the smoke," Fadell says. "We were like, 'This should be much easier.'"

Fadell's team came up with what they call the "Nest wave." Just gently wave your hand a few times toward Nest Protect to silence it during a false alarm, or "nuisance alarm," as Fadell calls them. You don't need to flail your arms and hands with a towel to get the smoke billowing away from the device; Nest has installed ultrasonic sensors in the device to read your hand motions.

It's a rare instance where midair gestures feel necessary. Whereas hands-free gesture interactions on Samsung smartphones or via Leap Motion can often feel incredibly gimmicky, Nest's solution makes sense: You're far away from the device already, you don't want to have to grab a towel or open a window--the experience is improved. Moreover, the relaxed nature of the gesture brings a sense of calm to an otherwise panicked situation. Imagine if in order to turn off your television's volume, you had to wave your hands like a maniac to get rid of all the sound waves. Finally, we have a hands-free mute button for our false smoke alarms--one that's even more intuitive and accessible than what's on your TV remote. "We call it the 'wave hush,' like, 'I hear you, it's all good, it's hushed,'" Fadell explains.


Traditional smoke alarms have two states: silent, and full-on freak-out mode.They don't distinguish between early warnings and emergencies. Heck, they don't even distinguish between rooms; they just blare a sound loud enough to catch your inferior colliculus's attention wherever you may be in your home.Nest realized it could do more than just scream. "If there is an emergency, we don't just want to beep at you," Fadell says. "It's about providing safety and information."

When the system detects that something is wrong, it not only notifies you by voice during an incident but before and afterward, too. "There's carbon monoxide in the den," Nest Protect might say. Or: "Smoke is clearing in the kitchen." Or even: "Heads-up, there's smoke in the living room; the alarm may sound." It's the difference between a hotel concierge politely telling you your room number, and that same concierge blowing a foghorn in your ear to let you know your room is ready.

There are myriad advantages to safety with voice notifications. Most obviously, the system will give you a better sense of how to respond to the alarm. "If you're in the bedroom and you left a cake in the oven, you'll want to go downstairs to get the cake out of the oven," Fadell says. Inversely, if you're in the kitchen, and the system says it senses smoke in the bedroom, you might want to call for help rather than running upstairs into danger.

Less obvious, though, are the benefits of providing a voice over an alarm sound.Fadell cites a Victorian University study that found that children can sleep through beeping smoke alarms. "Studies have shown children are less likely to wake up to a horn and more likely to wake up to a mother's voice," he explains.

The idea here is that Nest is able to provide unique warnings and notifications; that way, with each false alarm, it's not always "the boy who cried wolf," Fadell says. And when it's actually a serious emergency, you're more likely to listen up.


Often with traditional sensors, it's unclear whether they're on or powered. The device might've died, or someone might've removed its batteries to silence a false alarm and forgotten to put them back in. Perhaps the sensors have simply deteriorated over time. People are supposed to check if their smoke alarm is working regularly, but most don't.

To correct this, Nest Protect provides helpful color cues to reassure users that everything is all right. At night, when you turn off the lights, the system will check that the system is working--that its sensors are functioning properly, its batteries are powered--and then the ring around the center of the device will glow a calming shade of green. The company calls it "nightly promise." (After that, Nest Protect smartly doubles as a nightlight, glowing white as you approach it before dimming as you walk away.)

During the day, if there's no activity, the light won't show to conserve power.But if the device detects early signs of smoke or carbon monoxide, or if the system has a message to give you, it will glow yellow. And if there is an emergency, the device will glow red, and then back to green if all is safe again.


The most dreaded part of muting a traditional alarm? When the damn thing refuses to shut off, and you have to climb up on a chair to poke the tiniest of buttons. "It's insane to me how all of these other things have really little freakin' buttons on them!" Fadell says.

Because of the "hush wave," you likely won't need to get a ladder or broom handle to silence Nest Protect, Fadell says. But just in case you do, he adds, "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."


Unlike traditional smoke or CO detectors, Nest Protect isn't working on its own.If you have multiple devices, they all speak to one another: If a Nest alarm senses danger in the kitchen, even if you're in the upstairs bedroom, the device there will let you know. More impressively, if you have a Nest Learning Thermostat, the two gadgets can work together. If Protect senses a carbon monoxide leak, as a precaution, the thermostat will immediately shut off your boiler or furnace, common sources of such leaks. Likewise, because there are likely to be more Protect alarms throughout the house, these devices can better sense when there are or aren't people at home, and accordingly notify the thermostat to start cooling down its systems to save energy. Nest is starting to paint a picture of what a "smart home" is actually supposed to be--namely, smart.

And because the system is Wi-Fi enabled, it can sync with your smartphone to deliver mobile notifications, such as early signs of carbon monoxide, low-battery alerts, and so on. Most significantly, in the event of an actual emergency, the app can also immediately provide the proper instructions for who to call, say, when you have a carbon monoxide leak.


When Steve Jobs was introducing the original iMac, he famously (and accurately) described the PC landscape in just four words : "These things areugggggggllllllllllyyyyy." The problem? All PCs at that time were just beige, boring boxes.

Similarly, while many have brought beauty to everything from vacuum cleaners to bluetooth headsets, fire alarms haven't changed in decades. They're often blandly colored and shaped, an eyesore almost designed to be ignored. "The smoke alarm you grew up with looks the same as it does today," Fadell says. In other words, these things, too, are ugggggggllllllllllyyyyy.

But Nest, like Jawbone and other hardware makers, is bringing a sense of beauty to otherwise neglected objects. With its dimpled sunflower pattern and rounded corners, its circular center and color glow, the Nest Protect looks like something you'd want to add to most rooms of your house--and not just because you're required by law to do so.


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