Top Control Interfaces are More Than Just Pretty Screens


Where man meets machine

Feb. 06, 2012 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

IT’s NEVER BEEN more apparent that the User Interface (UI) is one of the most important factors in system design. The UI — also called the GUI or graphical user interface — is simply the set of visuals that allows man to interact with machine. In the home entertainment and automation world, you’ll encounter UIs to control your systems, whether it is on a touchscreen, a handheld remote, or a source such as a PlayStation 3 or Apple TV.

The reason the UI is so important is because it directly affects how you control and therefore enjoy your system. “The remote or touchscreen is what you touch and feel every time you use the system,” says URC‘s director of marketing Cat Toomey. “Control is how you connect to the experience, how you interact with it, how you get the most out of it. The best A/V experience in the world means nothing unless the control aspect is intuitive and personal.”

And while it’s universally agreed upon from control manufacturers that the UI needs to be simple and intuitive, many manufacturers are going the extra mile to allow custom installers—the guys responsible for programming the UI in your home systems—to be creative with customization. Others are opting for straightforward control with no bells and whistles in order to simplify the programming aspect of the installation and create a straightforward UI across all controllers. In between these opposite ends of the spectrum are manufacturers that provide some degree of customization as well as canned interfaces. Designing a UI for a home control system involves the hardware, such as a touchscreen or handheld remote control, some sort of UI software (most manufacturers have their own), and the programming talents of a systems integrator.

Less Is More

Control4 is of the opinion that less is more when it comes to customization, valuing a consistent user interface across all the manufacturers’ devices. “Unlike companies that provide a lot of latitude for designing custom interfaces, we’ve found that consistency is key,” says Randy Newkirk, director of technology product marketing for the company. “One of the most compelling things about our UI is its usability and consistency… [it] auto-generates based on the configuration of the installation.” Because all Control4 UIs are essentially the same, troubleshooting is easier for installers, who don’t have to refer to their files to figure out the schematics of a particular UI. Additionally, the cost of an installer programming a custom UI is nonexistent, and the overall installation cost is therefore more predictable. Control4 does offer some degree of customization through its Theme SDK software, which lets installers change the basics. “From an ease-of-setup standpoint you can’t beat Control4. There is simply no UI configuration needed at all,” says Dustin Bransford, programming manager of DSI Entertainment Systems in Los Angeles.

More Is More

Of course, that limited customization may be suitable for many installations, but solutions that offer greater flexibility — such as AMX and Crestron systems—are often needed. “With Crestron and AMX you have an open canvas, which lends these systems to being used for applications that are out-of-the-box or unique,” says Bransford. Companies like Crestron and AMX spend their resources providing more programming latitude, which in turn means additional time invested by the installer to realize the feature set and functionality expected from these systems. The breadth of functionality and creativity that installers can exercise makes it worth it, however, especially considering the types of high-end installations where these systems can be found.

And with great flexibility comes great responsibility: Doing it right takes a talented programmer. That’s why it is important, when hiring an integrator, to find someone who has the skills to program complex systems. DSI, for example, has four programmers on staff who have collectively spent hundreds of hours honing DSI’s own unique user interface. By hiring an experienced integrator, you get that expertise without having to subsidize the installer’s learning process for creating a new interface. “UI design is an art form. It takes a lot of time and dedication to create an interface that is creative, easy to use, looks good and is flexible,” says DSI CEO Eric Thies.

If programmed well, all the processing that goes on behind the scenes remains invisible. “While you are navigating through simple steps on the touchpanel, the control system is taking care of all the complicated tasks in the background,” says Kevin Price, lead programmer for Sublime Integration in Mississauga, Ont.

In their quest to make complex programming easier for installers, manufacturers are continually improving their UI software. AMX offers a TPD4 application that allows the integrator to develop on any platform capable of controlling an AMX system; the company also offers predeveloped user interfaces. “With our software, the homeowners can get an intuitive user interface tailored to their needs and the requirements of their system,” says Adam Gershon, AMX residential product manager.

Crestron is alleviating some of the burden as well with its new Core3 UI Framework, which gives installers the freedom and flexibility to create completely custom user interfaces, while lessening the workload involved in doing so. “Prior to Core3 UI, infinite creativity was somewhat of a double-edged sword as it often required hours of graphics development and interface testing, not to mention an artist’s eye and some sense of color ... which let’s face it, not all of us have an abundance of,” says Josh Stene, Crestron director of technology management.

Dave Ohlendorf, lead programmer of Bekins in Grand Haven, Mich., echoes Stene’s sentiments: “The design of user interfaces that are completely custom is where the difficulty arises. Programmers need to double as graphic designers to make a product really shine.” To assuage that added pressure yet still offer its clients these high-performance and flexible control systems, Ohlendorf recently began using templates created by third-party companies to reduce the time involved in creating an aesthetically pleasing UI, allowing his team to focus on function over form. Guifix, for example, is a third-party designer that employs both programmers and graphic artists to create elegant UIs. In addition to doing the work for the installer, Guifx can nail down how much the design work is going to cost, taking the guesswork out of budgeting. “Installers love our GUI kits because they allow them to do what they do best without worrying about being a designer or a usability expert,” says Morgan Strauss, president of Guifx.

Bridging the Gap

Somewhere in between these two extremes of limited customization and total carte blanche are companies that are offering some degree of customization, plus prepackaged UI solutions. RTI’s lauded Integration Designer UI software strikes a nice balance.” [The software] is highly customizable and is really only limited by our imagination and abilities,” says Lance Anderson, founder of Admit One in Edina, Minn. “ [RTI] has really come on strong lately and is starting to compete well with what were once considered to be ‘more advanced’ control systems.” Like Control4, RTI has invested heavily in a set of predesigned pages that are available to installers at the click of a button. “Where RTI really shines is in offering sophisticated control options at an affordable price, and providing installers with a very powerful and efficient platform to program the devices in a control system,” says Pete Baker, RTI’s vice president of sales and marketing. URC is also committed to helping installers deliver personalized, intuitive control experiences for less. “With our products and programming software, URC installers can do things like design separate interfaces for each member of the family, based on each individual’s interests and preferences,” says Toomey. Perhaps most unique to URC is the vibrant group of installers, partners, and URC engineers who have created the URC Tool Box app store, where installers can find resources to create more personalized experiences, including custom backgrounds and themes, audio feedback, fonts and more.

Walking the line between customization and prepackaged UIs is Elan, a company well known for its gorgeous, built-in interface templates. In fact, many installers use the basic template Elan provides, customizing it minimally for color or a personalized home page. “The thing I like about Elan programming is its fluidness. You can program one subsystem at a time, test it, and then move on to the next, and it all ends up combined together in the end,” says P.J. Au-coin, partner at Home Concepts in Calgary, Alb. Event maps or ‘if… then’ macros make the automation portion of the system fun and only limited by your installer’s creativity.

Saving the installer time and your money, home-automation manufacturer HAI’s Automation Studio software has a “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get) built-in simulator that lets integrators create touchscreen pages in a drag-and-drop environment to see exactly how the page will look without having to download the design to the touchscreen. Installers can then feed the customized graphic interface to third-party computers as well as HAI touchscreens for a consistent look across platforms.

“Personalizing the touchscreen with a family image or business logo connects the technology to the owners’ lifestyle and interests,” says Greg Rhoades, associate director of marketing at HAI. Vantage also bridges the gap, providing total customization and predesigned templates. The company’s Design Center software allows integrators to create either completely customized environments tailored to a homeowner’s whim, or use templates that automatically build the project with minimal programming required. Perhaps most appreciated by installers is the fact that they don’t have to be a programming wizard to design a Vantage UI from scratch. “But it’s more than customization. It’s personalization as well,” says Andrew Wale, Vantage’s vice president of marketing. “Just as people choose to personalize their smart-phones with unique apps and widgets, installers can personalize Vantage user interfaces for individual rooms or users, controlling everything from the look and feel to which features are visible on the screen at a given time.”

Familiar Control

While some manufacturers focus on customization, others on predesigned templates, and still others on both, a handful are putting a very familiar user interface at the top of their lists of priorities. iPad and iPhone integration are de rigeur for all the major control manufacturers’ product lines because they are familiar.

Savant, with its Apple-base control system, is the first home-control company to capitalize on the success of Apple’s wares by leveraging the company’s iOS ecosystem as a developmental environment for homeowners familiar Apple capabilities like “swipe,” “pinch” and “zoom.” Savant’s templates generate automatically within the Apple iOS environment, making Savant’s UIs very customizable and flexible. “The Savant user interface is familiar to a large number of users. There have been over 250 million iOS devices sold by Apple, so people already know how to use our system,” says Jim Carroll, Savant’s general manager of residential business.

Newcomer ClareControls’ ClareHome has also received a lot of buzz recently as the first home automation system managed from the cloud and run on a Mac. From the ClareCloud, integrators configure and monitor ClareHome, but you,the homeowner, are the one who actually downloads and creates your own user interface.

The Cost of Customization

While it would be nice to end this article with a succinct formula on how much customization will cost you, it is incredibly hard to quantify. Many factors play into the cost; most importantly, the complexity of the system. It will take an installer much longer to program a UI for a home system that has control over security, lights, pool, audio, video, and HVAC than it would for a home whose only systems are lights and music. “Most remotes we program only take a few hours,” says Anderson. “However, programming time increases as the system gets more complex.” Bekins contends that a user interface could take as little as one hour, or as many as eight, and cost the customer upwards of $1,000. While this cost is significant, it generally ends up spread across multiple interfaces. Home Concepts was brave enough to give us a numeric value: The company charges $100 an hour, but programming can vary wildly, ranging anywhere from two hours to 30, again, depending on the complexity of the system. Bottom line: Ascertain how long programming will take from the beginning so you won’t be surprised.

Whether your system is super complex with multiple rooms and subystems or a simple home theater, the user interface should be taken seriously when it comes to design. It is where man and machine mingle and will dramatically boost the enjoyment of your home and all that its systems have to offer. After all, isn’t that the point?

Check out the slideshow for the best in home control interfaces.

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