Designed by ex-Apple luminary Tony Fadell, the Nest thermostat seemed pretty incredible when it debuted in 2011. All you had to do was set the temperature as you saw fit, and it’d learn your habits over time to save you money on your energy bills.
But the Lyric thermostat ($279, on shelves this August), by the Fortune 100 home and business infrastructure company Honeywell, makes the Nest look like an idiot. Look past the Lyric’s relatively unexciting industrial design—I'll admit, I prefer Honeywell's classic thermostat, which served as the design inspiration here—and you’ll see a pile of great ideas in how our homes will track our habits, diagnose problems, and connect us to real, human assistance as needed.
Tracking People, Not Their Schedules
For decades, you’ve been able to put a light or a thermostat on a timer, to tell it when to turn on or off. But timers are imperfect. What if you come home from work early? How does scheduling work then?
In response, the Lyric doesn’t predict your schedule; it tracks it. Every member of your family can be linked to the Lyric through his or her individual iPhone. Then, the Lyric uses a technology called geofencing—basically an invisible fence around your home—to signal when the A/C should turn on or off based upon whether or not anyone is home.
"It’s a way to say, don’t worry about it," Tony Uttley, vice president and general manager at Honeywell Home Comfort & Energy Systems, tells Co.Design. "There’s nothing to learn, no schedule to remember. If you have a day you’re home at 6 and one you’re home at 10, it’ll all work out."
The Lyric allows you to set up one of two fences. The first is in a 500-foot perimeter around your house (for urban dwellers), while the second is in seven miles of your house (for car commuters). With this buffer, the Lyric will have your home waiting at the right temperature when you walk in the door, saving you money while you’re away, but ensuring your immediate comfort whenever you’re back.
Hard Numbers Take Human Subjectivity Into Account
"It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity." Yes, it’s the most annoying observation in history. But it also has a bit of truth. While our weather report may go too far with proclamations about "feels like" temperatures, the perfect 72-degree room may not always be a literal 72 degrees. Maybe the perfect 72 degrees is actually cooler in the humid summer. Maybe it's warmer in the frigid winter.
The Lyric knows what the weather is like outside, because it’s connected to the internet. That means it also knows the humidity (as well as anything else published by the National Weather Service). In turn, you can set the thermostat to whatever temperature you like most and know that, whether it’s the moist summer or dry winter, your house is being adjusted so it should always feel plenty comfortable.
We’d love to see if and how Honeywell takes the "feels like" idea a step further. Because when it's 90 degrees, and 72 degrees inside home, that’s freezing cold to some and barely cool enough to others. As long as the company is accounting for our perception, it would be helpful if Lyric set the thermostat at 80 degrees or 68 degrees for when we get home (depending on our warm- or cold-bodied preferences), then gradually ramped it down or up over the next hour, easing us into a comfortable, cost-efficient ambient temperature.
Big Data Predicts The Future
The Lyric is constantly recording the temperature in your home, when your heating and cooling system kicks on, and how long it takes to bring rooms to the proper temperature. It’s paying better attention to this granular part of your life than you ever would. And because of all that data, it can see trends—namely, if your A/C is working 20% less efficiently than it was at the same time last year, or if there’s some strange spike in heater activity, which could signal that your furnace is about to die in the middle of winter.
"Think of it as a check engine light in a car," Uttley explains. "You don’t know if you should pull over or drive for a year. We have enough info about this domain that we can say, it’s time to have a professional look at your system. It’s showing signs of what’s about to go wrong."
Honeywell has created the backend of the Lyric platform to connect to Honeywell’s 90,000 contractors nationwide, so you could feed your heater information to a contractor all the time (in a similar fashion to how some have speculated that fitness wearables, like the Jawbone Up, could feed your activity to your doctor). It’s unclear how one contractor could monitor 30 homes at the same time without it sucking away their day. Notably, this backend referral service offers no fees to Honeywell, so Honeywell has no financial incentive to refer you to contractors more often than necessary. Customers should be able to trust their platform's service recommendations.
How Smart Homes May Actually Get Smart
Now, if all of this sounds like overkill for a mere thermostat—after all, there is more to our lives than the temperature of our homes—that’s only because it is. Honeywell sees the Lyric’s digital backend as the platform for a whole suite of smart home products, Uttley explained, (including some made by manufacturers other than Honeywell). The company's engineers overbuilt Lyric on purpose so that it will scale to all of your home appliances.
It's hard to imagine a future in which we’d use Honeywell's core Lyric application to control our domestic lives, rather than some platform created by an Apple, Google, or Microsoft, if only because these Silicon Valley companies have created so many of the operating systems behind the electronics we know today. Microsoft Windows has served as the connective glue for thousands of printers, monitors, mice, and keyboards. The company has decades of experience doing this sort of thing. Meanwhile, Apple rules the world of connected apps within iOS. And Google, along with Amazon, dominate in the world of cloud-connected services. In this climate, it's hard to imagine Honeywell becoming the new platform rather than another accessory to someone else's platform.
Even still, the Lyric is giving us a taste of just how deeply the next wave of "smart home" appliances will integrate with our lives—and how little they will ask of us, the users, to do so.