Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

Pushing the “Humble Thermostat Into the Digital Age”

October 25th, 2011 / in research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

An interesting example in today’s New York Times about computing in sustainability:

The Nest thermostat: the device's temperature is set by moving its outer ring [image courtesy Jim Wilson/The New York Times].…The humble household thermostat.


A boring wall fixture and an unlikely target for innovation? Not to [Tony] Fadell [a former Apple executive who led iPod and iPhone development from 2001 to 2009], his team of 100 computer hardware and software experts and the venture capitalists backing his Silicon Valley start-up, Nest Labs


Unlike other thermostat manufacturers, Nest Labs has a sizable team of specialists in the branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning, including Yoky Matsuoka, who came from Google and whose work won a MacArthur Foundation award…


They see the conventional thermostat as a dumb switch that can be changed into a clever digital assistant that saves homeowners money and reduces energy consumption and pollution.


“We’ve built the world’s first learning thermostat — a thermostat for the iPhone generation,” Mr. Fadell said.


Nest Labs, based in Palo Alto, Calif., and founded last year, is announcing its offering on Tuesday, and plans to begin shipping the $249 thermostat by the middle of November.


Outsiders who have tried out the product are impressed by its stylish design, ease of use and advanced features, like motion-tracking sensors that detect whether people are present and adjust room temperatures accordingly…

So how does the Nest thermostat work — and why could it be revolutionary?  From the Times‘ article (after the jump):

Homes account for more than 10 percent of the total energy consumption in America, including transportation. About half of the residential energy consumed is for heating and cooling, with the rest going for lighting, heating water, appliances, televisions and computers.


Each degree cooler a house is kept in a heating season (winter), or warmer in a cooling season (summer), translates to a 5 percent energy saving. So shifting consumption patterns, say, four degrees on average can mean energy savings of 20 percent, experts say.


Since the average home spends $1,000 to $1,500 a year on heating and cooling, that would translate to $200 to $300 in lower energy bills. It would also mean fewer power plants built and lower carbon emissions.


“There is a huge amount that can be gained in homes, and an intelligent thermostat could be a great opportunity,” said John E. Bowers, director of the Institute for Energy Efficiency at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has not seen the Nest device…


Despite the high cost of the Nest device, Mr. Fadell contends it will pay for itself in a year in energy-savings, with scant effort from the user.


At first, a person may set the thermostat four times in one day — upon getting up, going to work, getting back from work and going to bed. The thermostat uses those settings daily, then adapts to further changes. If a person is out of town each Monday on business, the Nest sensors detect that and switch to an “auto away” setting for lower energy use.


“You can, but you don’t have to program it, because it learns,” Mr. Fadell said.

Read the rest of the New York Times‘ story to learn more.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

Pushing the “Humble Thermostat Into the Digital Age”