Home automation, or home control as it’s also called, is constantly changing. And like most technologies, it improves with age. It gets smarter, less expensive and easier to use each year. We’d be remiss not to mention some of the improvements and enhancements destined to hit the marketplace—and your home—in the very near future. From 1 to 10, in no particular order, here are the hot topics.
1. Snazzy Controls
Operating your home’s lights, thermostats and A/V gear from a touch-sensitive control panel can be fairly boring, unless your panel’s got some snazzy graphics to keep you engaged and entertained. Yes, programming your thermostats to setback automatically can actually be fun.
Home automation manufacturers are making it simpler for home systems installers to add fancy features to touchpanels by including multimedia platforms like Flash, Java and Guifx into their software. Often with a point and click, home systems installers can dress up the panels with animation, unique buttons and colorful backgrounds. They can give the touchpanel the same look and feel of an iPhone, where gestures like finger swipes set an automation scene into motion or “pinching” the screen zooms in a surveillance camera. “This is the kind of stuff that gives automation a real wow factor,” says Jeff Singer, communications director for home automation manufacturer Crestron. “By in large, home systems installers aren’t graphic artists. Now they can be, by just downloading objects from Flash right into their touchpanel designs.”
Most manufacturers believe that the wow shouldn’t stop at the touchpanel. Within their programming software, they’ve given home systems installers the tools to easily import that same graphic layout into other interfaces. The interface resizes itself automatically to fit the screen, be it that of a TV, keypad, remote control or iPad.
Will spiced-up graphics drive up the cost of the user interface? Not as much as you think, and you have Apple and its reasonably priced iPad to thank for that, says Susan Cashen, vice president of marketing for Control4. “Consumers’ expectations are much higher than they were a few years ago,” she notes. “They want sophistication at a good price.” With its Flash-based programming software and $899 price tag, Control4’s new InfinityEdge touchpanel is inching closer the to the $500 benchmark set by the iPad.
Cost no concern? Savant Systems has perhaps the most entertaining interface of all. Its Touch TV products function both as full-fledged high-definition televisions and home control interfaces. Without interrupting the TV program, a user can tap the screen to bring up a menu of control options, from which commands to lights, thermostats, security devices and more can be launched.
Savant’s Touch TV
2. Not Your Father’s Remote … or TV or Telephone
For years, companies like Remote Technologies Inc. (RTI), Universal Remote Control (URC) and Philips Pronto have focused on manufacturing handheld remotes for operating A/V systems and home theater components. While these companies are still great sources for traditional clickers, they’ve broadened their scope to include complete home automation systems. “Operating things is what we do and we want to control everything,” says URC CTO Eric Johnson. So much so, that the company recently changed its name from Universal Remote Control to just URC.
To facilitate the transition from clicker to complete home control, most manufacturers have developed wireless control hubs ($150 to $1,000) that deliver signals from the remote control to the other systems. These hubs, in turn, deliver feedback to the screen of the remote or touchpanel. They’ve also developed technology partnerships with third-party manufacturers. Through these partnerships, the manufacturers collectively develop two-way modules and drivers that allow their respective devices to seamlessly communicate, ultimately forming a network of devices that can be controlled via brand of handheld remote or touchpanel.
“Through the creation of these modules we’ve done all of the heavy lifting for the home systems installer,” says RTI VP of sales and marketing Pete Baker. “He no longer has to write his own scripts and codes to get products to intercommunicate.” For consumers, this results in a system that’s simpler to install and therefore more affordable. And, one that can operate everything from thermostats and lights to irrigation systems and pool controls.
Now that RTI, URC and Philips Pronto have become legitimate automation manufacturers, they’ve had to broaden their own product portfolios to include touchpanels. “We currently have more touchpanels than we do handheld remotes,” says Baker. As he explains, the larger screen of a touchpanel is more suitable than the small screen of a handheld remote for operating lots of subsystems.
You’ll also find automation popping up in devices like A/V receivers, cable boxes and telephones. Sony, for example, employs a feature called Quick Click in some of its receivers, which when configured allows the receiver to operate lights in addition to typical A/V gear. The built-in screen of Panasonic’s KX-NT400 IP network telephone, meanwhile, can be an interface for operating a Control4 automation system.
3. Falling Prices
The remote control manufacturers aren’t the only ones focusing on affordable home control solutions. It’s a common theme across the industry. But nowhere is it more obvious than from high-end companies like Crestron, Elan Home Systems and AMX. They continue to add affordable solutions. “It’s a natural maturation of the technology,” says Singer. “Automation has evolved to the point where it’s no longer perceived to be a luxury.” Adds Elan CTO Bob Farinelli: “There’s enough awareness and demand from consumers now that it’s time to cater to the mass market. Scaling down has become essential in order to compete with folks [like RTI, URC and Pronto] who are heading in the same direction.”
Crestron’s Prodigy and Elan’s g! systems are inching closer to that pricing sweet spot. They cost considerably less than the company’s high-end systems, but still offer many of the same features, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, the Prodigy can distribute six audio and video signals to six zones, compared with the dozens of sources and zones handled by the Crestron’s high-end offerings. And instead of 10-inch color touchpanels, 4- and 6-inch touchpanels are offered with Prodigy.
Paring down processing power is one way Elan is cutting costs. Like others, the company has made its g! system easier and quicker for custom integrators to program and install. As a result, consumers will pay less than they have in the past for labor. “We have developed canned templates that custom integrators can use when designing touchpanel graphics,” says Farinelli. “They can design and install a full system in a lot less time than with a highly customizable, expensive home automation system.”
Elan Home Systems’ new g! system shows how automation is becoming more mainstream.
4. Broader Distribution
As manufacturers continue to streamline and simplify their systems, expect to see design and installation services through a wider variety of channels. In addition to the classic custom electronics professionals, you’ll be able to buy automation from security dealers, electric utilities and cable companies.
This trend is not completely new, as companies like HAI have been selling through security dealers for years. However, “it’s a shift that will gain momentum in the next 12 to 24 months,” says Greg Roberts, vice president of marketing for iControl Networks. His company happens to be spearheading the big distribution push, as biggies like ADT have invested in its ConnectedLife system, a web-based technology designed to be integrated into alarm panels, cable boxes and other mass-market devices.
Available via ADT’s new Pulse system, consumers will get the standard features of an alarm system, plus the ability to control a home’s lights, thermostats, surveillance cameras and other devices via any web-based controller—at an entry level price of $399, plus around $45 for monitoring.
“Home control is a natural extension for us,” says Don Boerema, chief marketing officer for ADT North America. Plus, the market conditions are ripe to go mass market, he adds. “In the past, home automation systems were made up of disparate products. Now those products can be fully integrated. Before, all systems had to be wired into a house, now there are wireless solutions. Systems used to be expensive, now they’re affordable.”
5. Energy Management Makes Its Move
Home automation has rarely been a hot button for consumers. Usually they’re looking for something else, like a home theater, and that’s okay. Home theater is, and continues to be, a great way for consumers to segue into full-blown automation, and many manufacturers offer home theater control systems that can be expanded to include the control of lights, thermostats and other devices.
There’s a new Trojan horse, though, and that’s energy management. As utilities continue to roll out smart grids and look for ways to curb production, and homeowners grow increasingly more energy-conscious, home automation seems the likely solution. “It may be that you can live without high-def video around the house, but when your utilities are running $500 a month, it’s time to do something about it,” says Farinelli.
One of the places manufacturers are starting is at the thermostat. (Studies show that due to the complexity, most homeowners never take the time to program their thermostats, which completely negates their purpose. Per an edict from the EPA, programmable thermostats can no longer be sold as Energy Star-certified devices.)
An automation system can greatly simplify the task of programming thermostats, as well as other energy-hungry devices. Many manufacturers, including Elan, have developed straightforward scheduling programs, accessible on touchpanels, which allow consumers to set up daily adjustments for their thermostats.
URC and Control4 have taken it a step further by integrating energy monitoring features into their systems. Homeowners can see, right on the screen of a user interface, real-time energy usage in kilowatts and dollars spent, for example. They can key in on the main energy guzzlers and pattern their behavior accordingly.
Companies like AMX (pictured), Control4 and URC have integrated energy monitoring features into their systems.
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.