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Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
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Mullins: Nest a kinder, gentler, smarter smoke alarm

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The other night, we burned something in the toaster at home, and like most people, we sprinted all around the house to open the windows before the smoke detector went nuts. Rather annoying.

The good news is that the world of home automation is coming to the rescue, and if I only had a Nest smoke detector, I could have just given it a friendly wave, and it would have held off the alarm. This is the new frontier in home automation and it’s far, far smarter than the geektactular systems that most people think of when they read the phrase “home automation.”

These are not the ’70s-era home intercoms that still hang, broken, on the walls of houses all over America. And these are not even the nascent webcams that people park around their houses to spy on the babysitter.

These are particularly savvy gadgets coming from startups like Nest and tech giants like Verizon and Bright House. Even hardware makers like First Alert, Stanley and Kwikset are trying very hard to make these things so easy to use you might actually use them.

So far, Nest is leading the innovation and buzz wave by a very large margin. Nest already produces a wildly popular thermostat that learns how you like the house temp and links to your iPhone so you can warm or cool the house before you get there. Very popular among the digerati and millennial demographic, as you might guess. Apple stores sell them.

Now Nest will soon launch a smoke detector with a few features that — like Apple — make you wonder why someone didn’t make something this smart and simple before. Among them:

◆ One, there’s no need to wave towels or stand on chairs. If the toaster torches something, the Nest will give a polite pre-warning — basically, “Did you burn the toast again?” And since the Nest has a motion detector, you can just stand underneath it and wave your hands, and the Nest holds off sounding the alarm. Very savvy.

◆ Two, if you walk the hallway in the middle of the night, the Nest can detect your movement and turn on a gentle night light to brighten your way. A little spooky, but I bet you get used to it.

◆ Three, it has vocal alarms. Because kids are less likely to wake from the sound of a buzzer, the Nest has a voice recording that tells kids to get up and get out — NOW — in multiple languages.

◆ Four, it connects to your smartphone (obviously) to make all the adjustments you like.

◆ And five, it has a “Nightly Promise” feature, so before you go to sleep, it shows a green glow so you know there will be no low-battery chirp waking you up in the middle of the night.

The companies that have long made smoke detectors have reason to freak out over such awesomely innovative competition, and they’re trying their own smart systems, too. First Alert has a new line of smoke detectors that are as small as a shot glass and come in several colors. They have no Wi-Fi links or programmability, but still, kudos to First Alert for innovating. There’s also the Chick-A-Dee smoke detector that literally looks like a bird perching on a tiny branch. Kinda cute, I suppose.

Lockmakers Kwikset and Schlage now have automated front door deadbolt locks with features like key code pads and Bluetooth sensors that work like modern car keys and unlock when you approach with your phone.

The thing about all these gadgets is they are one-time purchases. The Nest detector will set you back $129, but there’s no monthly fee.

Which brings me to Verizon, which is trying to grow a home automation business with the same business model as home security systems: the monthly charge, in Verizon’s case, $9.99 per month plus equipment. There are loads of ultra-smart features, like the ability to turn on and off everything in your house from a remote web browser. Bright House has a similar strategy and can program cameras to take photos when doors open and send email alerts when kids get home from school.

What will be interesting for me to watch is how everyday people respond to the different approaches — small startups like Nest selling one-time-purchase gadgets, or tech giants like Verizon and Bright House selling a monthly service, or perhaps some other approach we haven’t seen yet. There’s lots of potential, and no shortage of quirky ideas. I’m starting the clock on Keurig before they have a Wi-Fi-enabled coffee maker you can start with a Twitter post.

This is part of a new phase of society, and if you don’t believe that, just remember that TECO already has discounts for installing smart meters that control your power consumption, and State Farm “Drive Safe & Save” and Allstate “DriveWise” will give you a discount for embedding a gadget in your car to track your driving habits.

No joke, a vacuum cleaner company sent me an offer to test its new model that “utilizes a Data Bridge” that tracks how many calories you burn while vacuuming the house.

If you want to explore the latest in that world, just watch the TED talk presentation for “Internet of Things.” It’s a glimpse of life where every single solitary object is digital and wired into your experience. Privacy advocates, feel free to begin freaking out. Don’t get me going on employers and health insurance companies tracking your pedometer, and Nike+ running records in exchange for a discount (or employers considering your “participation” in such programs as part of your annual review.)

We’re pretty low-tech at home, compared to all our friends, but even so, all the gadgets around my house are starting to require techie “updates” more often than I would like. Maybe the Nest will make me a convert to the connected home trend.

Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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More than once, I’ve taken a news source to lunch and they’ve pulled out their a smartphone to post a photo of their dish on Instagram. Now there is proof that such a thing just ruins the meal. Not that I’d ever tell someone to lay off the camera, but a new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology did an experiment tracking people who looked at photos of food before their meals and those who didn’t. Photo peepers enjoyed their meals less. How sad. This may make me think twice about clicking the “more photos” button when I’m on Yelp looking for a restaurant. The user photos do always seem to look awful. There are 57 photos on the Yelp entry for Pané Rustica in Tampa, and only a third make you want to go there, when in reality, it’s a great place with fantastic food.

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Earlier this week, I wrote about William Dean chocolatiers’ plans to move into International Plaza. So, chocolate lovers of Tampa Bay, don’t freak out. They are not, not, not leaving their store in Bellaire Bluffs, they are merely expanding with another location. It should be open by December if all goes well. You can always buy online at William DeanChocolates.com. And, if their plans work out, you’ll see their goodies as ultra-luxurious snacks in the next installment of “The Hunger Games” movies.

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I know some people still believe in buying Apple iPhones gadgets at the Apple store instead of online, but here’s some help for those devoted brick-and-mortar shoppers. Since Apple introduced new iPhones with fun colors like silver, grey and gold, there’s been a rush of buyers, and stores often sell out. If you want to know which store has the color you want, just go to tbo.ly/1f6bMBY. It’s our short link to the handy “iPhone Check” site that lets you plug in your zip code, pick your phone color and see where that color is available.

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Did you buy a Heidi Klum “Truly Scrumptious” stroller for your baby? Might want to bring it back to the store. Consumer Reports tested the $220 stroller and found the safety harness failed to stay securely latched on tests like running into a curb or tipping over. That’s a big deal. The magazine said 75 percent of the 46,200 stroller-related injuries from January 2008 to December 2011 happened when kids tumbled out of strollers. The Heidi Klum model was the only one with this problem, the magazine said.

When contacted by the magazine, the manufacturer disputed the claims.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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