10 Hot Home Automation Trends
The latest buzz when it comes to managing and controlling your home.
Crestron’s UFO-like touchscreen remote

November 11, 2010 by Lisa Montgomery

6. Streaming Media
The ability to tap into Internet-based content from providers like Pandora, Netflix and Sirius Radio has been hot for some time, but instead of downloading the data into a dedicated media server or iPhone the way you might do it now, soon you might pull it directly into your home automation system or store it in a cloud-based “digital locker.”

“We envision that you’ll no longer need a hard drive to access content,” says Michael de Nigris, co-founder and CEO of Autonomic Controls, a company that’s developed technology that facilitates global access to content and streaming services. “Instead, you might buy an album, have it reside in a cloud on the Internet, an access from anywhere and from any device.”

He believes it’ll take another two or three years for sans-server setups to become a reality. For now, his company’s Mirage Media Server is providing a solid step in that direction by enabling content to sit in the cloud and home automation systems to control and access that content. From the screen of a home automation interface, users can stream music, view what’s stored in their digital locker and play it wherever and however they want. For example, a user could schedule content like a Pandora station to play in specific zones at predetermined times. Currently, Autonomic’s technology facilitates audio streaming from Pandora, Sirius Radio, XM Broadband and Radio Time, but it shouldn’t be long before video is added to the mix, says de Nigris. The technology can be integrated into home automation systems from AMX, Crestron, HAI, RTI and URC.

Some companies are taking a slightly different approach. Crestron and Savant, for example, offer their own products that can stream in music and movies from a number of content providers. “The beauty is, you don’t have to know who the content provider is to find what you want,” says Singer. Through Crestron’s WorldSearch Technology, the ADMS Intermedia Delivery System scans the Internet based on a keyword you type in (like “Beatles”) and delivers all the related music and movies it can find. “It truly is an aggregator,” says Singer. The user can then browse the list of Beatles content on the screen of a Crestron touchpanel. From there, you can choose which selection you’d like to download and store in the ADMS.

Control4 and Pronto, meanwhile, rely on third-party apps developed for their systems to aggregate and stream. The ProntoTunes app, for example, lets users access and control content on their Apple TV servers and iTunes accounts from one of Pronto’s control panels. And while Control4 has been streaming in content directly to its automation system from Rhapsody for some time, it believes the future partnerships with content providers will be facilitated through apps. “We see our system functioning as a portal to the outside world, not just a portal to systems inside the house” says Cashen.

The Mirage Media Server from Autonomic Controls can feed streaming content from the Internet to a home automation system.

7. Doing It Yourself
Control4 figured that if apps could add functionality to a phone, why not to a home automation system. Last year, the company unveiled its 4Store marketplace, where consumers can download a variety of applications directly to their Control4 automation systems. It’s a concept that’s helped spur a trend whereby consumers are given the tools to easily modify the functionality of their own systems.

Apps are just one way of doing this. Home automation companies are starting to create user-friendly programming platforms through which homeowners can set up simple automation routines. For example, through a special scheduling program, a homeowner could adjust the on and off times for the lights and save those changes. Absolutely no programming experience is required. In many cases the end-user will be able to make changes right at the home control touchpanel.

The shift to self-programming isn’t intended to sabotage the custom installation business. Systems will still need to be installed and programmed initially by a professional. However, consumers will no longer need to schedule an appointment with their pro every time they want to tweak a setting. Ultimately, this saves time and money for both consumers and professional integrators.

8. High-Tech Hotels
Hotels are becoming increasingly more high-tech, and not just in their conference rooms, where automation system have been running the lights and the audio for years. Guests rooms are starting to incorporate touches of automation. You may not even be aware, though, that your room is so smart. Hotels are using automation to operate more efficiently, according to Singer. After you check out, for example, the system might sweep through the room turning off lights, setting back the thermostats and shutting the drapes.

What you might start noticing, though, are rooms that welcome you with soft music, the lights on and the temperature set to your liking. If your hotel is particularly tech-savvy, you may even get the chance to operate the fireplace, drapes, lights and audio/video equipment from one touchscreen-style remote control. 

9. Android Adds Mobility
Mobile devices are gaining ground as the primary interface of a home automation system.

“The days of proprietary touchpanels are over,” professes Craig Spinner, director of marketing for Savant. The company recently dropped touchpanels entirely from its product lineup, suggesting instead that homeowners use iPads or iPhones to interact with their home automation systems. Savant, in addition to nearly every manufacturer of home control systems already offers an iPhone and iPad app. Next up: Google Android apps. These apps, currently being beta tested by a number of manufacturers, will let consumers use their Samsung Galaxy Tabs, Dell Streaks and other Android-enabled mobiles to control their home’s electronic systems.

Control4 is giving homeowners the tools to add features to their automation systems simply by downloading an app from its ever-expanding 4Store.

10. Tight Networking
Seamless integration of products is the key to a reliable home automation system. The security system needs to be able to talk to the lighting system, the lighting needs to be able to communicate with the A/V equipment, and so on. A home automation system glues all these various subsystems together so they can operate as one cohesive unit. You press a button on a home control keypad, and all the subsystems respond.

Historically, tight integration required many hours of engineering and programming by a home systems installer, but that’s slowly been changing. While home systems installers still do a fair amount of programming, home automation manufacturers are doing some of the legwork for them by offering not just the main control processor that fuses the systems together, but the subsystems themselves.

Creston offers everything from media servers and A/V distribution systems to lighting systems and thermostats, and recently introduced its first speakers. Savant Systems added a 16-channel digital amp to its lineup of home automation products, and lighting control manufacturer Lutron Electronics is calling itself a provider of complete home control by adding to its lineup thermostats, occupancy sensors and modules that can turn various electronic devices on and off.

Most home automation manufacturers offer options beyond what’s in their own portfolios, as well, thanks to their involvement with Z-Wave and ZigBee technology. These two wireless home networking standards basically provide installers—and homeowners—with the building blocks to a complete home control system made up of products from a variety of manufacturers. It’s a solid concept, offering consumers lots of options and the ability to build their home control systems gradually as their needs or budgets dictate. The popularity of both Z-Wave and ZigBee is on the rise, with more than 400 and 100 certified products, respectfully. And the roosters will likely keep growing, as more industries get into the business of home automation. Utilities, broadband providers and builders like that these networking solutions are affordable, modular and easy to deploy.

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Lisa Montgomery - Contributing Writer
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

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