Beki Grinter

How to Outwit Your Thermostat and Other Tales from the Future

In empirical, HCI, research on July 31, 2012 at 8:33 am

Having lived with an Internet scale that will tweet my weight if I want (what planet did the designers inhabit before they moved to Earth) and mastered the art of not allowing it to do so, we are now experimenting with “smart thermostats”, i.e. the products from Nest. Let me say from the outset that I’m very excited about these. They look beautiful. Gone is the old white thermostat with its “I’m an 80’s calculator, or perhaps even a wrist watch” interface. This has a turning dial, it’s smooth, it glows blue when cooling and red when heating. It also tracks our energy usage, so I can see how many hours a day we are cooling our house. Also because its connected to the Internet it knows how hot it is in Atlanta and uses that to infer whether we’ve possibly used more energy to cool today because the weather has been warmer.

So that’s all working very well.

What has been more interesting is that the Nest is trying to generate an automatic schedule for us. What I mean is that based on the way we set it when we am here, the Nest has been building up a data corpus that it’s now using to control the settings in the house, including settings for when it thinks we are away. You can turn this feature off, but we thought it would be interesting to experiment with it.

This works well when we are on a regular schedule, but the summer for academics is not always routine. So a new feature for me is when I am home trying to pretend, at least to my thermostats, that I am still away. One way they detect that I am home is through movement, so I have found myself in the bizarre situation of attempting to sneak past my thermostat in order to get somewhere without it knowing. I’ve been mostly successful.

I also find myself thinking “what are my thermostats doing?” I hope that this will wear off with time, but while they are still learning I wonder what they are getting up to at home while I am away. Fortunately Nest has an account, you can log on, download the iPhone/iPad apps and while away those boring moments in meetings by checking in on your thermostats. I’ve had to turn mine up and down several times, especially in the early phases when they didn’t understand my schedule. I have a thought for a really good rouse which is to set the temperature on someone while they are at home. Do I think that the Home Office is set too low by its current occupant, now I am empowered to change it on them. Bhwaa haa haa…

I’m pretty happy with the Nests, I’m enjoying learning more about my energy usage (although since I can’t compare it with, say my neighbors, I’m not sure whether I’m doing better or worse than others). But, I am reminded about how with each innovation in home automation, so I’m adding another little to-do into my life. So, I’m balancing its sensible aspects and adapting some of my behaviours (like sneaking about my house) in order for it to make sense of the routines I want it to know about, not the ones I don’t.

  1. I love the idea of Nests, but I’m also laughing out loud at the asides (and the image of sneaking by one’s thermostat).

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