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

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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