Nest tackles another unloved device, redesigns the hated smoke detector

Nest ProtectCan Nest do what it’s done with the thermostat — reinvent it with wireless tech, smart algorithms and great design — for another unloved product: the hated smoke detector? On Tuesday the startup, founded by former Apple (s AAPL) employees including iPhone and iPod designer Tony Fadell, announced that it will soon start selling “Nest Protect,” a well-designed smoke and carbon monoxide alarm.

Reports surfaced late last month that Nest would soon launch a smoke detector (first reported by formerĀ Wall Street Journal technology reporter Jessica Lessin). But this is the first time that Nest is talking publicly about the product and giving details about it.

The device has a variety of sensors and wireless connections and a new type of interface that creates a smoke detector more befitting to the iPhone demographic (Fadell will talk more about the design and creative inspiration at our experience design conference RoadMap next month in San Francisco).

While a smoke detector is an unusual move, I can see why the team would want to take on the neglected device as its second product. Most people down right hate their smoke detectors. I’ll readily admit to knocking down more than one of these ugly gadgets off the ceiling with a broom after it wouldn’t stop its low-battery incessant chirping. Bad design and poor user experience mean that a lot of households aren’t able to effectively use a device which could one day save their lives.

night-time room

Nest Protect

The Nest Protect device has six sensors — smoke, carbon monoxide, heat, light, activity, and ultrasonic — a WiFi connection, and a ZigBee-like wireless connection, which all make the gadget much smarter than the barebones smoke detectors out there currently. While a traditional waving-handssmoke detector is binary of sorts — in alarm mode or totally quiet — Nest Protect has a variety of states in between and new ways to communicate with the user.

If the Nest Protect detects increased smoke or carbon monoxide levels it can alert the residents with both audio and a color code on the ring on its face. The resident can then look to see if there is an emergency situation, and if there’s not then the user can use a hand wave gesture — activated by the activity sensor — to dismiss the heightened alert state. There’s also a big ol’ button in the middle that can be pressed to stop the heightened state.

The Nest Protect also remembers which room it’s in and if there is smoke or carbon monoxide detected it can tell what room the problem is coming from. Particularly if there are multiple Protects installed throughout a house.

Nest ProtectThe user interface is also much more sophisticated than basic smoke detectors. The ring in the center — reminiscent of the ring used by Nest’s thermostat — can glow green when everything’s fine, yellow during the heightened state (or when the batteries are getting low), and red when there’s an emergency.

The light sensor detects when the lights are on or off in a room and when the lights are off the activity sensor can be used to passively light up a room with a warm glow when someone walks by. The frustrating issue with the low battery chirping in basic thermostats is also partially solved because when the battery is low in Protect, the heightened alert state and audio voice will tell the resident a variety of times as the battery gets lower and lower. It also tells the user via a mobile app. Though the battery will last multiple years.

Nest Protect also uses a proprietary form of the 802.15.4 wireless connection (the one that ZigBee is also based on) to connect multiple Nest Protects throughout a house, so that when a user interacts with one of the devices, the other Protects know what’s going on. The Protect can also use this wireless connection to talk to the Nest thermostat. If you’ve got ’em both, then bam, your house has started to get straight up Nestified.

And of course, with the cell phone as the standard interface to the home these days, Nest Protect can be controlled with a mobile app or via a website. That means some interesting connections between the device and the app, like the ability to see a heightened state or emergency remotely, and a mobile app that can offer emergency numbers and suggestions during an emergency.

Nest Protect is undoubtedly a superior product to other smoke detectors on the market. But will homeowners be willing to spend $129 on a smoke detector, when basic ones cost $20 to $30? Well, Nest certainly proved the market is there for a hip thermostat, though smoke detectors are an entirely new industry and asset.

Nest is taking reservations for the smoke detector now, and they plan to start selling and delivering the device in early November.

Nest Protect

Future of Nest

I admit I was surprised to hear that Nest will be tackling the ugly smoke detector. I thought they’d either go deeper into energy or do an even more consumer product for the digital living room. But I do like how Nest only wants to focus on underserved markets. How many more of these long ignored home devices are there — the garage door opener or the door key itself?

Nest execs told me that Fadell envisioned the smoke detector product focus after he was in bed late at night and was perplexed by a flashing LED light on his home’s smoke detector. Nest has been working on the device for at least 18 months.

Nest has morphed into a decidedly large company at this point thanks to the growing sales of their thermostats and their large rounds of venture capital funding. They have 270 employees, they hired a CFO from Tesla about 9 months ago, as well as a VP of Marketing from Levi’s recently, too. The company says they have 5,200 points of sale, 10,000 certified installers, and are selling in online and offline stores like Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, The Home Depot and

This article was updated at 1:23PM PST on October 8th to reflect that the wireless connection that connects multiple Nest Protects together is based on 802.15.4, which is the standard that ZigBee is based on, but the connection itself is not ZigBee.