Top Control Interfaces are More Than Just Pretty Screens
Where man meets machine
February 06, 2012 by Krissy Rushing

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.

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