Tech & Science

Tell Me More About Me, Please

In the Magazine
A Nest thermostat is installed in a home in Provo, Utah, January 15, 2014. Google Inc took its biggest step to go deeper into consumers' homes, announcing a $3.2 billion deal January 13, 2014 to buy smart thermostat and smoke alarm-maker Nest Labs Inc, scooping up a promising line of products and a prized design team led by the "godfather" of the iPod. George Frey/Reuters

It's hard to know why Google just paid $3.2 billion for a pipsqueak of a company called Nest. Some claim Google wanted the design chops of Nest founder Tony Fadell and his Apple-esque team, since, when it comes to hardware, Google has demonstrated an aesthetic sensibility that might be called "1970s Soviet." (See: Glass.)

Others say Google wants Nest's data about your home life. Nest makes a smart thermostat and a smart smoke detector. The devices learn your furnace-setting habits and detect heat and particles in the air. Maybe Google wants to sense the steam when you step out of the shower so it can send an ad to your smartphone for a moisturizer.

Both of those guesses may turn out to be correct, but Nest is also part of a broader emerging trend that Google's chasing. The hottest new tech products are going to answer questions we never even thought to ask about ourselves and our surroundings.

The day the Nest deal was announced, I was in the Silicon Valley offices of investment firm General Catalyst Partners, talking with a group of young entrepreneurs. They described this trend as "the I.T.-ification of consumers." Corporate information technology departments used to be the only ones digging through data to find insights and efficiencies. Soon we're each going to do it in our everyday existence, embracing data the way we've embraced other life-enhancing things that never occurred to previous generations, like DVRs and pills for erectile dysfunction.

Over the past couple of years, we've seen some early versions of consumer-data technology. Not long ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to track how many steps you take every day. Now you just slip a Fitbit on your wrist. You might say "Big whoop-de-do" - until you hear that taking 10,000 steps a day can significantly improve your health. Suddenly you care, and the data from that device matter.

A gadget called Scanadu promises to take health data much further. The little white disk is packed with sensors that can record your heart rate, oxygen in your blood, stress levels and other vital signs that used to be the stuff of your annual visit to the doctor's office. Now you can take such readings every day, and the Scanadu will send the data to computers in the cloud that can then map your vitals to recurring events. As the company says on its website: "Learn ways that different people, locations, activities, foods, beverages and medicines affect your body."

Thus it's enabling you to get answers to previously impossible questions, like: "Does a visit from my in-laws actually make me sick?"

This is where Nest comes in. Its thermostat has some internal smarts and a wireless chip that lets it connect to your home network and then out to a data center. The system is powerful enough to learn the tendencies of residents of the house, map trends and cross-reference them with pricing information from utilities. You then get insights into how you heat your home and how to save money.

Nest has plans to develop other smart networked sensors - Fadell has said he wants to create the "conscious home." Sensors throughout your home could collect and analyze data about anything from who leaves a mess in the family room to why so much food disappears from the fridge each night, perhaps finally answering parents' questions like, "Why did I ever have kids?"

History is full of one-trick devices that told us something new. In the 1800s, German physician Carl Wunderlich invented a foot-long thermometer that could record an accurate body temperature - by being held under the armpit, in case you were worrying. For the first time, we could ask, "What's a normal body temperature?"

Clocks, X-rays, atomic microscopes - they all answered new questions. Before Uber, you could not stand on a city street corner and ask, "Where are all the taxis?" (Well, you might ask it rhetorically, with a few epithets thrown in.) Now you can open the Uber app and see where they are - and tap a button to hail the nearest one.

But the key to Nest, Fitbit, Scanadu and the new wave of connected gadgets is that they're not isolated. They're smart enough to send data back to powerful computers, which can slice and dice the information and correlate it with other information from other sources. This allows us to get more complex insights - deeper than a one-off taxi finder or temperature reading.

All the excitement in technology is moving to connected gadgets - products that involve networked hardware and data-analyzing software. Over the past year or so, venture capitalists have pumped about $500 million into such "Internet of Everything" companies. Alex Hawkinson, the chief executive officer of SmartThings, has proclaimed 2014 "the tipping point year" for connected devices.

"Why now?" asks Frank Rimalovski, who runs New York University's Entrepreneurial Institute. "One, the cost of the underlying components has plummeted in the last few years. Two is technical feasibility - you can make things that weren't practical a few years ago. Three is the smartphone. Smartphones make a universal controller for all these devices."

And then there's demand. As companies invent new capabilities, we become aware of answers we never knew we needed - and that creates a demand for those answers. You never knew you needed Tater Mitts until you saw the infomercial. You didn't know you needed insights into your heating patterns until you heard of Nest.

Connected gadgets are inventing a new kind of demand, which is generating pull for new kinds of connected gadgets. Soon we will be awash in these things.

This new business will open up some new questions of its own, especially about privacy. The gadgets both fit into and push against trending attitudes toward privacy. Consumers increasingly are shying from sharing personal data with the public and with behemoths like Google and Facebook. But we will want our data - as much as we can get - as long as we control that data.

Companies in this space will have to earn our trust. The first time Google lets slip that it knows you're in the shower - that could be a deal-breaker.

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