What to make of Nest's learning thermostat?
Would a thermostat design revolution give us more control, or help to relinquish it? asks Hattie Hartman
I hate my thermostat. I’m forever downloading the user manual to remind myself how to reprogramme the simplest of adjustments, and to look up the miniature symbols on the tiny, illegible screen. Likewise, here at Telephone House, conference rooms are invariably too hot or too cold, windows don’t open, and there’s no way out but to head-butt an overly complex thermostat.
Founded in 2010 by the ex-Apple engineers behind the iPhone, the Palo Alto-based Nest was recently acquired for $3.2 billion by Google. The Huffington Post has called its key product a ‘learning thermostat that marries Apple IQ with Frank Gehry-style design’. Nest’s product is intriguing. Not only is it seductively appealing, but it also programmes itself every time you adjust it and can be controlled from anywhere.
What do you make of Nest’s learning thermostat? I put this question to several of my trusted green sources this week. One replied: ‘Bringing good design to thermostats might increase people’s intelligent use of them. But it also allows them to disengage and rely on technology with no idea if it really works or not.’ Another observed: ‘More intelligence embedded into buildings should lead to a better understanding of how they work, and help to close the performance gap.’
And a more cynical third said this: ‘Nest is hardly humankind’s crowning glory. Couldn’t we work on feeding the whole planet before we get excited about seamless connectivity between a smartphone and a smoke alarm?’ And what about the privacy issues? Do you want Google to know when you wake up, when you are out, and when you are in?
Even the RIBA sees the implications; as policy officer Emilia Plotka weighing in: ‘Access to energy consumption data at a larger scale could help identify energy-use hotspots and point to areas that could benefit from community energy or retrofitting schemes. This data could also help architects predict behaviour and tailor the specification of new-builds accordingly. Another lesson for architects is that thermostat specification should not be left to M&E subcontractors.
I was dutifully cynical until I had a closer look. Like the iPhone, we didn’t know we needed it before it existed, but the YouTube video makes it look irresistible. It’s more Foster than Gehry, or perhaps Jobs. Nest’s product price point is steep; it retails at $250 in the US. (The UK launch date has yet to be announced.) But soon, the best smart systems will be attractive selling points.
I tested the idea out on my 17-year-old over dinner. Her first reaction was to fantasise how lovely it would be to control the temperature of her bedroom from under the duvet, but then she wondered: ‘Imagine if someone could remotely turn out all the lights in your house, how creepy would that be?’ To make it even creepier, when I was writing this leader, the ding of a text message from Vodafone interrupted me, ‘Weather a bit chilly?’ I swooshed to reveal this message: ‘Control your heating from your phone. Wave goodbye to wasted energy, say hello to Hive.’ Big Brother is watching.