“Ok Google, I’ll be home by 5”

“Ok Google, I’ll be home by 5”

Nest has had my interest from the first major announcement of their thermostat, thanks to nailing two of my core interests: energy and modernizing the home. Anyone with any background in energy and a moderate understanding of modern “learning systems” instantly understood that the Nest thermostat had the potential to be “A Very Big Deal”. A potential which the Nest thermostat has definitely achieved.

As for modernizing the home… to say that changes in how homes are built is “slow” would be an insult to the pitch drop experiment. But that’s not relevant (directly!) to this discussion, so I’ll move on.

The addition of Google Now integration last week (early Dec, 2014) wasn’t exactly a surprise, given that Google acquired Nest a while ago. Obvious or not though, the integration is pretty awesome to see. Hell, just stop and think about it for a minute: you can tell your house to adjust the temperature for you. With your voice. Remember when that was only possible on Star Trek? This is crazy! It’s amazing! It’s the future! Shiny!  If Nest doesn’t at least FAKE the release of a tea/coffee maker for April 1st it would be a travesty.

Alas. While it would be great theater, I’m not sure that the coffee/tea maker market is really a great fit. If the Keurig didn’t exist, perhaps.

So, the obvious question: what really is next for Nest? Thermostat, Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Alarm, DropCam… and?

First off, did anyone really call the Nest Protect? In hindsight it does make good sense, extending the range of the thermostat while also adding a stand-out product to a neglected, stagnant market. Despite the seemingly limited number of prevalent but neglected tech products in the home, guessing at Nests current focus is far from a gimme.

That said, there is really only one thing that jumps out at me as being in line with the Nest vision and history: a line of smart(er) power strips – aka ‘six plug adaptors’. While strip implies ‘long cord, plugs in to wall’, I am actually thinking more along the lines of those 6-plug adaptors that plug flush against wall – like this one, only not as fugly. I’m certainly not alone in guessing along these lines (here’s one example), though unlike DigitalTrends, I do not believe that we’ll see actual replacement, hard-wired wall outlets, or at least not only hard-wired outlets.

A smart power strip fits the vision: Take a device that’s common (pervasive, actually), and feature poor. Turn it around and release a version that absolutely nails the primary use case, addresses a double handful of neglected secondary use cases, and saves user effort, energy and/or lives. A power strip has the potential for all three: Save energy, lives and user effort.

Saving Energy

Devices that are supposedly “off”, generally actually aren’t. There’s a great read over at the economist on the subject of vampire loads, if you’d like to get (back) up to speed. Suffice it to say that many, many things you plug in are drawing power even when you aren’t actively using them: anything with a “wall wart” (cell phone chargers, LED desk lamps, etc), most of the devices in your entertainment center, computer monitors, the computer itself, etc.

But it’s not just vampire loads that a “smart” power strip could shut down. A desktop computer could be notified that it should shut down via an integration similar to those found with battery backup systems – except that if the Nest outlet detects that the computer didn’t shut down (did someone leave a level unsaved in Unreal Engine 4? Tsk tsk!) it won’t cut power and blow away unsaved work. Connected lamps could obviously also be shut down.

I expect that I will be able to say “Ok Google, I’ll be back in four hours” as I walk out of the house, and my Nest devices will react accordingly: HVAC will go into away mode, all my outlet-powered lamps will shut off (which is 90% of my lighting) and my entertainment center will power down. My internet stack and the range (damned clock!) would be pretty much the only thing drawing any power at all whatsoever.

It will be like the “master switch” I’ve always wished I had by my front door, so I can stop with the ritual dance through the house to turn off lights before heading out. Hue does some of this, but.. not very well at all, frankly. And wow, there’s nothing quite like having to reboot your lights as you’re getting into bed to foster a deep and abiding love of our brave new digital world.

Saving Lives (and preventing property damage)

It will be interesting to see how many fires are prevented by smarter power strips (and, eventually, outlets). Toasters are semi-notorious for shorting out and bursting into flames. Unlike Tesla fires, the hype is well earnedaccording to Consumer Reports, between 2002 and 2009 just over 35,000 home fires could be attributed to defective appliances. Coffeepots and tea makers alone accounted for 281 fires, 3 deaths and over $8 million in damage. Toasters and toaster ovens for 902 fires, 3 deaths and $11.5 million in damage. Bent, frayed, or just plain defective power cords account for over 715 fires and 15 deaths – the higher rate of fatalities due to these failures occurring throughout the home, including in bedrooms.

Smart power strips can prevent fires through active monitoring as well as simply passively. Passive prevention is effectively just “unplugging” any devices that are connected to the strip when they aren’t in use – e.g. when you leave the home or go to bed the smart power strip shuts off power to the outlet. A smart outlet will learn when devices aren’t usually active and will simply not send power to the outlet during those times. Some method to quickly enable the outlet would of course be provided, for those occasional midnight snacks.

Active prevention runs a much wider gamut. A fuse could very nearly be considered the most basic of active monitoring devices, and a smart power outlet can act something like a adjustable, learning fuse. The outlet ‘learns’ the typical power draw from its connected device and adjusts its ‘fuse rating’ accordingly. If an outlet that normally measures a small draw for a few minutes suddenly ‘sees’ a power draw of twice the normal rate, the power strip can send an alert and/or shut off power to the outlet.

A smart power strip can also react to abnormal usage lengths, unlike a simple fuse. Say you’re making toast and the eject mechanism gets jammed (or the thermostat fails, as is more common). As you have made toast a few dozen times before, the outlet has learned that  the connected device, the toaster in this case, has never drawn power for more than two minutes straight. Accordingly, at minute three you get an alert on your phone telling you that a device is operating outside of its normal pattern. At minute four, if you haven’t responded, the power to the device is shut off.

With just a bit more intelligence and a longer learning period – aided perhaps by also asking the owner what is plugged in to the outlet – the power strip learns the ‘shape’ of the load. Divergence from the norm, such as dips or spikes, or significantly increased power draw, would point to a degradation in the devices performance, or even damage.

In writing the above an interesting addition occurs to me: it is probably possible to detect fire risk (or even active fires) by measuring the temperature of the power cord at the outlet. Power cords are copper wire wrapped in plastic. Copper conducts heat quite well, and plastic insulates against heat quite well, making the power cord a heat pipe of sorts. A sudden rise in temperature of more than a few percent would indicate seriously problems with the device being powered. This would have to be controlled by a learning process as well, because transformers (“wall warts”) tend to get quite warm during operation.

Saving Effort

Saving power is nice, and decreasing risks to life and property is even better. Getting all of that and not increasing effort on my part? Amazing! Truly, absolutely, amazing. That’s what the Nest thermostat provides, and that’s what a Nest designed smart power strip would provide. Plug your devices in to the Nest power strips and go back to ignoring them, if that’s what you want. The power strips will learn on their own.

Or you will be able to engage with your devices in new ways. Examine the power use history of your toaster and learn how much more energy it consumes when it’s dirty. See how much it really costs to leave a desktop PC running 24/7, and how much power your computer uses when you’re playing “Dragon Age: Inquisition” as compared to sitting idle or browsing the web. Go on vacation and know that your lights will keep your normal schedule, making it look like you’re still home, while everything else stays off.

And, my personal favorite: flick a virtual “master switch” on your way out the door simply by saying “Ok Google, I’ll be back at 10pm”.