Some of our most innovative technological advancements have improved upon products with which society had been perfectly content for years. For a generation, after rotary dialing gave way to touchpad phones and before cellphones hit the mainstream, people were perfectly happy with the telephones that they had. These phones were convenient and effective; they allowed to you store numbers, save a favorite caller, connect to answering machines, and even conduct a reverse phone lookup. What more could you want? Consequently, since there was little clamor for new telephone technology, few people recognized the opportunity for innovation. Those who did became remarkably successful.
We may currently be seeing a similar phenomenon with thermostats. Like the telephones of old, thermostats are regular features in American homes. Most people pay them no attention and few people have thermostats that are far superior or advanced to those owned by anyone else. After all, thermostats are remarkably uniform in their offerings and, despite the addition of digital screens, haven’t altered much in features or in functions over the past couple decades.
A group of former Apple employees hopes to change this. They have founded a company called Nest Labs that makes thermometers intended to do nothing less than transform the way homes and business regulate their temperatures. In doing so, Nest Labs plans to help people save money and the environment – all while using a thermometer that looks more like a smartphone than a traditional temperature-control device.
The company’s thermometer is dark metallic in appearance, circular in shape, and is operated by moving your finger over the touch-screen display. Certainly, it looks and feels like an Apple product. Even so, despite its appearance of complexity, the Nest Lab thermometer is quite simple to operate: the user can select and set an ideal temperature for when they are in the house. At this point the thermometer takes over. It can automatically raise and lower the temperature by detecting patterns of usage and movements of people in the area. It can learn routines over time that can help it select the best temperature. And it can make any changes in a way that best maximizes temperature efficiencies. All this is done with the goal of heating and cooling a building in a way that cuts energy use and utilities bills.
While the Nest Lab thermometer is priced much higher than the traditional device, its manufacturer claims that the cost will be more than offset by utilities savings. Whether consumers respond favorably remains to be seen. But, if they do, it could usher in a new wave of innovation akin to the cellphone boom.