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Nest Protect: how the iPod’s inventor made the fire alarm smart, safe and sexy

After reinventing the thermostat, Tony Fadell's team at Nest have made home safety tech exciting

There are few people in the world with greater hardware pedigree than Tony Fadell. While at Apple, he designed the and shipped the first 18 generations of iPod (and he got Steve Jobs to buy into the whole crazy stunt in the first place). He also happened to build the team that created the iPhone.

He founded Nest in 2010 with former iPod and iPhone lead engineer Matt Rogers, and set about building the world’s cleverest and most desirable thermostatNow, Nest has turned its attention to another unloved and forgotten home essential: smoke alarms. Every home needs one, and yet they’re perhaps the single most annoying tech product in history. 

The result of Nest’s efforts is Nest Protect, a connected smoke and carbon monoxide detector that leaves your beeping beige box choking on its fumes.

It connects to your phone, tablet or computer. It talks to you with real words rather than just beeping. You silence it with a wave, not a frantic flapping of your hands. It connects to the other Protects you have around the home to deliver warnings to every room. It lights your way as you walk under it in the dark. It tells you that it’s working fine every night, so you don’t have to press that stupid red button. In short, it’s not really like your smoke alarm at all.

We caught up with Nest founder and CEO Tony Fadell to find out why a safety product should be like this, and how Nest went about creating it.

Nest isn’t ‘the iThermostat company’

Tony Fadell

“When I was designing my home in Lake Tahoe, I came up with all kinds of problem areas. It wasn’t just the heating. The reason we named the company Nest was because it’s about home. We didn’t say, ‘It’s the iThermostat company’.

“We’re a team that reinvents important things in your home. Things that matter, things that are ugly, things that are old, dumb, that haven’t been reinvented for years. we blow ’em up, rethink it all, then put it together.”

The smoke alarm needed a complete rethink

Nest Protect

“Is [your smoke alarm] actually working? You don’t know. All you have is, at some point, a beep that goes off, usually at the wrong time. It’s crying wolf. So people are frustrated and those batteries are pulled out. You take a steamy shower, what happens? Goes off. You cook? Goes off.

“70 percent of deaths by fire in the UK are caused because people had a smoke alarm but it wasn’t properly installed on their wall, the batteries were dead or they took the battery out. They were so annoyed and frustrated with it that they just gave up. If you go on Twitter, you can just search for ‘smoke detector’ and see this litany of comedic things and you’re like, ‘This shouldn’t happen’. Not for something that’s so important.”

“So, why not make one that you might actually love? One that you actually might cherish, so it actually keeps you safe rather than having you look at it at night going, ‘Is this thing going to wake me up?’

“That’s we’ve been working on for two years. We’ve made it into a nice object that you don’t ignore.”

You can silence it with a wave

What happens when you burn the toast? Typically [your alarm’s] up on the ceiling, you can’t reach it, you’re not going to get a ladder, you’re not going to get a broomstick – you just want to get the smoke away. So we added ultrasonic sensors for the wave. If it gives me a [spoken] heads-up about smoke, I can go up to it and wave to say ‘OK, I’ve got it in hand’. It goes away for a little while and says, ‘OK, I won’t bother you anymore’.

“Also built inside is a light sensor, humidity sensors and activity sensors so it can tell when there’s motion. And heat sensors, so we can tell the type of smoke. You won’t find any of that stuff in our competitors’ products.”

It doesn’t beep – it communicates

Nest Protect with red light

“Typically with smoke alarms and CO alarms, all they do is beep – there’s nothing else. We said, ‘Why don’t we look at this thing that’s always on your ceiling or on your wall. Why can’t it watch over you 24/7 and give you information if you want it? Make sure that it’s working.’

“So we thought about every stage of the way. [It notifies you in stages] from possible danger to all clear. Let’s say you burnt the toast. You get the heads-up, and you can wave it off.

“But maybe you left the quiche baking and now it’s burning. It’ll go through the heads-up and if it doesn’t see it, it’ll sound the emergency alarm. Then it will send an alert to your phone or to your tablet, and if you clear it all, it’ll actually tell you that everything is clear.

“[In a house with multiple Nest Protects], each one will go off, and tell you where the problem is. No like, ‘oh the quiche is burning, geez I I better go to the kitchen’. It gives you the information you need. It even tells you when smoke is clearing.

“If you look at smoke detectors today, every month they tell you, ‘Go and manually test it’. No-one in their right mind does that. So instead we test it for you, and we say, ‘Yeah, everything’s OK, green light – we’re still protecting you’.”

It’s always connected…

“It has Wi-Fi built into it. It has another wireless technology, 802.15.4, so even if your router goes down, [your Nest Protect sensors are] all talking amongst each other. And there’s a backup battery in case the power goes out.

“The activity sensors inside Nest Protect work with the activity sensors inside the Nest thermostat, so if the Protect sees you in one room, but the Nest learning thermostat doesn’t see you in another, they talk and say, ‘Somebody’s home, don’t turn [the heating] down’. If the CO alarm goes off, the Nest learning thermostat will turn off the boiler, so the CO hopefully goes away.

“It’s not just about smart individual products. It’s thoughtful communication – not crazy home automation stuff but simple things.”

…And you can keep tabs on it via your phone

“Each Nest Protect has remote status, so anywhere in the world you can look in at each of them [on iOS, Android or through your browser] and see when it was last contacted to test, the battery life that’s left. And you can get notifications too so anywhere: low-battery warnings, all those things. So you know you’re being watched over.”

It’ll wake up the kids

Nest Protect at night

“Most smoke detectors usually only wake up adults – young children don’t wake up to them. There are studies that have shown that children respond to voices, typically a mother’s voice, so we put in a speaker for interactivity, but we also use a human voice in the alarm.”

Nest Protect with yellow light

It’ll talk to you, too

Nest Protect front on

“Today, a smoke alarm or CO alarm goes off and it just beeps – you don’t know what to do next. You’re disoriented.

“Your government tells you what you should do, and we show you [on the app]: do this now; go through these steps. There’s a button to contact the fire brigade. You type in the number of the local fire brigade when you install it, and the number will be there, and you can [hit it to] call.”

It’s certified safe, and it’s a step ahead of hackers

“We re-engineered everything from the ground up. Inside, we have a carbon monoxide sensor, a world-class CO sensor, and a photoelectric smoke sensor, so there are no radioactive materials in it. We’ve designed our own smoke chamber so it can detect all different kinds of smoke – dry smoke, wet smoke, cold smoke, hot smoke, slow-moving smoke, fast-moving smoke.

“We’re certified with three major certification partners: UL US, UL Canada and the BSI. We have been through mountains upon mountains of documentation and testing. This is, after a car, the second hardest thing to certify for safety. So we have been working with the BSI for over a year now to get this right. They’re the ones who tell the world it’s safe, not just us.”

You’ve seen a lot of stories recently – ‘This lock was hacked, this camera was hacked’. People have tried to hack us, we hack ourselves, we’ve gone through hacker competitions. But we’ve been secure, and we continue to add more and more levels. Our goal is to make sure we have really strong security.

There are two different processors – the processor for the alarms is actually separate from the processor for the voices and all those other things. So in the case of something going really awry, this processor might get knocked out, this one is its own standalone system. It’ll default back to a smarter version of one of those [points at normal smoke alarm].”

It’s got a neat little trick up its sleeve

Nest Protect Pathlight

“Nest Protect has a feature called Pathlight. When it’s dark in the room and you walk underneath it, it glows as you pass. It can just light your way so you’re not tripping over the kids’ toys in the hallway.”

Nest Protect will be on sale in November for £110, in both wired and battery-powered versions. It’s available from Apple, Amazon.co.uk and John Lewis. You can reserve one here.