Meet Nest's Protect, a Smart Smoke Detector That's Actually Exciting

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What home appliance do you hate the most? Odds are good it’s the smoke detector—that incessantly chirping, totally inconsistent mess of beige plastic that we can only hope actually works when needed. That may be about to change: Today, Nest Labs unveiled Protect, a Wi-Fi connected alarm that lets you keep tabs on your home even when nothing's on fire.

So, first of all: How did smoke detectors become so maligned? When the Nest team stopped by Gizmodo to give us a preview of Protect a few weeks ago, they started by explaining what's wrong with typical alarms. Complaint #1, invariably, is that the low battery chirp goes off at night. Sound familiar? According to Nest, this nocturnal activity is due to a simple design flaw: As the temperature drops at night, the batteries cool down—triggering the sensor that detects low power. It's an incredibly dumb problem, but it has a huge impact: Almost two thirds of fire deaths are occur in homes where the alarm's battery was disconnected or dead.

That’s only one of many flaws the team at Nest wants to solve with Protect. This beveled-edge little device wants earnestly to be a hub for the connected home—a system that tells you when things are okay, as well as when things are wrong. So, what's inside?

Sensors That Simplify

Protect is packed the the gills with sensors—for smoke and CO of course, but also for heat, light, motion, and ultrasonic waves. These sensors aren't slapped on to add shelf appeal, or turn your home into a life-streaming Big Data experiment gone wrong (see your home's microbe count visualized!). Rather, they're all part of a use case in which Protect is a truly heads-up device.


Let’s pretend for a second that you’ve screwed up a grilled cheese (again? You doofus!). After detecting smoke, Protect will issue a vocal warning that smoke has been detected, rather than going off at full blast. (A fascinating aside: The voice is female because, according to Nest, studies have shown that young children are more easily woken by a female voice than by an alarm). If you're in another room, the motion sensor will sense it and beam the warning to the nearest Protect via Wi-Fi. The newly-overhauled Nest app will also send a push notification to your phone, along with the option to call emergency services. The ring of LED light at Protect's center turns a vibrant yellow—something's up.

Then, since it's a false alarm, you can silence Protect by waving your hand nearby, or dismissing the push notification. If the smoke doesn’t clear up, though, the warning escalates into a full-blown horn alarm (and the LEDs flash red). After the danger has passed, Protect's voice system lets you know everything is back to normal, and the LEDs glow green.

A Heads-Up Home Appliance

But while that's great, it doesn't make Protect terribly different from other "smart" alarms, like Canary, which also has push notifications. Rather, what could separate Protect from the pack is how it acts when everything is A-OK at home.


For example, when Protect's batteries run low, the light glows yellow and a vocal message lets you know (a push notification arrives, too). But even when the batteries are fine and there's nothing out of the ordinary happening at home, Protect's heads-up functionality makes itself useful. For example, when you turn off the lights at night, the ring will glow green to let you know all it's armed and ready—Nest calls this "the nightly promise:" everything's fine, go to sleep.


Another clever feature? If you get up in the night, the motion sensor notices—the LED ring radiates glowing white to light your way to the bathroom (or the kitchen to make another grilled cheese). And if Protect senses carbon monoxide, it'll notify your Nest thermostat to automatically shut off your gas furnace, stymying potential leaks. Again, this isn't designed to add more complexity to your daily routine—in theory, it's designed to make it simpler.


The Internet of Things, At Home

Will Protect see the commercial success of its big brother? Nest's CEO, Tony Fadell, has a track record of launching hugely successful products that no one knew they needed—starting with the iPod and including Nest's thermostat.

But Nest isn't designing the "iPhone of the Home"—that's not quite it. Protect is an entirely new genre of device, which needs no touch-screen or traditional UI at all. Instead, its interface is ambient: A system of soft lights, voice controls, and gesture-based commands that attempt to fade into the background of every day life.


When Protect hits shelves in the US at the end of the month, both the 120V and AA battery-powered versions will cost $129. That makes it cheaper than Nest's first device as well as more accessible—it's far easier to install a fire alarm than a thermostat. It's also a far larger market: In the US, there are three to four smoke detectors sold for every thermostat. If all goes as planned, Protect could be the device that brings the Internet of Things home. [Nest Protect]