UW Prof’s Startup Rolls out Smart Thermostats, Inspired by Apple’s Iconic Devices

In her work at the University of Washington, Yoky Matsuoka spends time figuring out how to make the brain work directly with machines. In her startup work, she’s targeting something a lot less fancy-sounding: the home thermostat.

Matsuoka is vice president of technology at Nest, a Palo Alto, CA-based startup aiming to tackle energy efficiency by giving the ubiquitous wall-mounted thermostat a major overhaul. Nest’s device, detailed in these stories from The New York Times, Wired, and Forbes, adapts to its owners’ habits by tracking how they adjust their heat. It also uses motion sensors to detect whether anyone’s home, and gives owners data to track their energy use over time.

One passage from the Wired piece sheds some light on interesting adjustments that Matsuoka had to make to the device’s algorithms after testing with users.

It turned out that the Nest thermostat was actually being too aggressive in controlling the temperature for energy efficiency when nobody was home, making people feel like they were being forced into greener behavior rather than nudged.

“We’re actually trying to change the culture,” Matsuoka says. “If we just put a machine-learning device in people’s homes that changes the temperature without people understanding how it works, it’s never going to take off. We really had to understand how humans learn to live with a brand-new system.”

Nest’s co-founders led crucial work on the iPod and iPhone before starting Nest. Matsuoka, who was a 2007 MacArthur genius grant winner, also is a former head of innovation at Google. She’s on leave from the UW while working at Nest.

The startup is backed by top venture firms, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Google Ventures, and Lightspeed Ventures. Today’s reports say the company has raised in the neighborhood of $50 million.

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