OK, the best thing about a recent CNN article titled “The Scattered, Futuristic World of Home Automation” is that it actually avoids the obligatory Jetsons reference. But as you can tell by the headline, the inference is there in spirit.
I understand that mainstream media looks at what we’ve been covering in Electronic House for the last 25 years with a different eye. Basically a blind eye, as they focus on what they deem home automation products. As with this article, they’ll typically focus on disparate pieces of a “smart” home and how they don’t mesh.
Next they’ll mention how companies such as Comcast and Lowe’s are getting into the home automation fray, and that there might be, gasp, monthly fees involved. Never mind that the Consumer Electronics Association has cited security monitoring as the top entry point for homeowners into some sort of home control system, and that security monitoring is as synonymous with monthly fees as cable service.
“Whatever the future of smart homes looks like, it will need to be dead simple, affordable and easy to use,” the CNN writer notes in her conclusion. Well, anyone who’s read Electronic House realizes that “the future” has been here for quite some time.
Typical of mainstream articles on “home automation,” this particular one also did not mention Crestron, Savant, AMX, Control4, Elan, RTI, Vantage, Lutron, HAI, URC or any other company ordinarily associated with such systems in our magazine. We’ve already expressed a bit in response to such mainstream articles about just what exactly this “home automation thingy” is, but I wanted to address it further so I asked a couple of these companies to clear up some misconceptions.
1. It Costs Too Much. “One of the biggest is that it is too expensive,” says Delia Hansen, Crestron solutions manager, residential market. “The industry hears this a lot. You have to buy hardware and software, have someone program your system, have someone install it, service it, etc. We compare home automation to buying a car. We certainly spend big bucks on a car that is a known expense that we can never recover. The home is an expense that is more of an investment and is often very much recoverable. When you look at other expenses that homeowners invest in: adding custom cabinetry, high-end appliances, and other custom features in kitchens—a home automation system is comparable in price. Why would we hesitate to add more value to our home, which is our biggest investment and where we spend most of our time?”
And while Crestron has always been on the high end of the affordability scale, some of the other names I mentioned do focus on homeowners with tighter budgets. Then there’s the Apple iPad angle, which has put the ease of user interfaces into the spotlight. Savant, whose automation systems are Apple-based, notes how this has furthered the cause not only in making “home automation” type operation more accessible to the masses as they become accustomed to using a touch-capacitive device but also by streamlining its own touchpanel hardware for one less major expense.
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“Savant has leveraged the power and broad consumer comfort of Apple’s iOS devices, eliminating the need for costly, proprietary touchpanels,” says Savant executive VP Jim Carroll. “Having an intuitive Apple-based system operate reliably from the iOS devices we already know and love has been a large step toward dissolving misconceptions.”
Custom installers often need to educate homeowners on just what goes on behind the scenes to justify costs, in some cases. That’s a big part of what someone like Todd Anthony Puma of The Source Home Theater in New York spends his time doing with homeowners, and it results in a more trusting relationship.
“The most common misconception I find with homeowners is the price. When they come into a consultation, they have high expectations of what they are looking for their system to provide and with these expectations comes a cost,” Puma says. “Because they are not educated in this field, they don’t see the value off the bat when they see 10-14 hours in programming or a base station and digital analog converter on their estimate for a full dedicated home theater room. They are anticipating the TV, speakers, Blu-ray, cable and gaming, but not the devices that allow them to all work together as one unit. Because they don’t physically see you programming their system, they have trouble grasping just how intricate and labor intensive it can be.”
2. It’s Daunting to Operate. For many, home automation conjures up the idea that using a touchpanel or keypads or universal remote control to essentially command every piece of electronics in your house is enough to make your head spin. The goal of automating things and designing a user interface that puts everything at a homeowner’s fingertips is actually meant to deliver the opposite. That it’s all a snap, and not intimidating, so much so that anyone from 5 to 95 could conceivably operate your home. That’s what we hear all the time from the custom electronics pros that design and install systems specific to their clients’ houses and lifestyle demands.
“Overcomplicated user interfaces give the home automation world a bad rap,” says Hansen. “The point of home control and home automation is to make life easier. Less remotes, less clutter, but instead a clean user interface which should be easy to navigate. ... One size doesn’t fit all. We’re not putting you in a box. We’re creating a truly customized interface to fit you, creating an intuitive experience. We recommend homeowners talk to their integrators about their lifestyle, routine and family. How can they design a system based on your life if they don’t know you? Once you have the right system for your needs, the touchscreen interface will speak for itself.”
Related: Serenity and Sophistication Blend in This High Tech Home, designed and installed by David Vincent Design, Carmel, Calif.
Another trend that is helping the home controls/home automation cause is more awareness in general, as telcos and security companies bring systems to market. These companies are obviously banking on the assumption that people will embrace the single user interface that ties together multiple systems.
“At Savant, we think this is a good thing,” says Carroll. “They’re showing the world how home automation is capable of changing their lifestyle. ... The adoption of commercially available off-the-shelf devices like smart phones and tablets have enabled a much broader reach for automation by removing up to 30 percent of the cost of the system by using a device the consumer is already intimate with.”
3. Home Automation vs. Home Control. Then there are the terms themselves, home control vs. home automation, and the misconception that they are equivalent. In context, they might be used interchangeably but in reality they are very different, in ways only companies like the ones I mentioned and the custom electronics pros who install their systems can show homeowners.
This is becoming more distinguishable as more “home control” products from the security companies and Lowe’s, for example, become available.
“I believe there is a difference between home control and home automaton. I see it as the difference between big box stores and custom integrators,” says Puma. “Home control is the DIY version of home automation. Home automation is customizable. It allows your entire home (audio, video, lighting, shading, HVAC, security) to operate together as one and is customizable to the client. Each system unique to their owner. Home control is similar, but can be found in everyone else’s home as well.”
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When everything is rolled together and expertly interwoven, that’s when home automation begins to really take shape.
“We distinguish between controlling the home—hitting buttons for an action to happen—and automation, which allows a series of actions to occur at once using a scheduler or preset, one-touch scenes,” echoes Hansen. Adds Carroll: “An automation system manages a host of almost limitless subsystems, synchronizing multiple commands into a single-button push from anywhere in the world.”
Now that’s powerful. That’s home automation. And that’s not the future; it’s in every home we profile in our magazine each issue and online every day.
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.