Home Control Interfaces Get Personal

You can have your home automation interfaces customized -- without breaking the bank.


Home control has always been about having your house work the way you want it to.

Want the lights to turn off automatically at midnight? The system should do that. Want the thermostat to bump up the heat before you come home from work? That should happen as well. Want every user of the system to have his or her own customized interface, tailored to that person’s wants and needs? Yes, even that’s possible today.

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And it shouldn’t cost you a fortune.

Tailor Made
Having a home control system automatically perform electronic tasks is a great convenience. And to best operate a system like this, you’ll need a user interface such as a touchpanel.

Like the dashboard of a car, the layout and labeling of the commands on the touchpanel should be easy to understand and provide the appropriate level of control. This will differ household to household and sometimes by the individual users within a home. For example, Mom might like to see just a few lighting control buttons on the screen, while Dad prefers to see every switch on the property.

You can further customize the interface by incorporating unique background colors, button layouts and labeling. The touchpanel in the living room might have an elegant red silk background while earth tones on the panel in the kitchen match the countertops. The added degree of personalization will require additional programming by a custom electronics professional (CE pro)—and in the past this could have cost you thousands of dollars.

Affordable Approach
Customization shouldn’t cost a fortune—and this belief has inspired several manufacturers to simplify their programming software, which proves a benefit to both the homeowners and the custom electronics firms serving them. Instead of spending hours writing complicated code to integrate a new Blu-ray player into the PLAY command of your home theater, your CE pro can just drag and drop the commands into the appropriate boxes in the programming software. This saves you a lot of money you’d otherwise pay for in programming time.

This new generation of software also provides CE pros with the tools to tailor the design of a user interface exactly to the needs, styles and tastes of every person who uses it. No longer does an installer need graphics design expertise to dress up the screen with special background colors, button shapes and animation.

Each member of your family can have his or her own personalized menu of commands, displayed in any color or fashion they prefer. For example, the kids can have a screen filled with bright primary colors and only those buttons that will get them to their favorite TV channels, while your more elegant page shows every channel in your lineup as well as buttons to let you tweak your surround-sound system and access the surveillance camera feeds.

“We supply the dealer with hundreds of different themes,” say Jim Carroll, president of Apple computer-based home control company Savant. Each theme comes with a specific style of button and background color. “The homeowner just chooses which themes they want, the installer checks the right box, and the user interface is generated.”

The personalized interfaces can be modified easily and quickly, too, so you won’t incur hefty programming charges should you want to add a new button or change the background color. “We can change the background in seconds, with no charge to the customer. In some cases, homeowners themselves can modify certain aspects of the design right at the touchpanel,” says Paul Foley, IT/project manager at Hermary’s, an electronic design and installation firm in San Carlos, Calif. The ability to modify the design of the user interface quickly is also a big plus should you sell your house.

Companies on Board
One of the biggest advocates of touchpanel personalization is CineTouch. Using a technology called Cast, the CineTouch software allows you to create as many as 16 operating profiles. You might have one for Mom, Dad, the kids, houseguests, babysitters and the in-laws.

By selecting your name on any touchpanel, the view and control of your home’s electronic systems change automatically to your personal preferences. You’ll see only the buttons that are important to you on a screen that incorporates the colors you like.

The real beauty of the software, which is designed to run exclusively on AMX home control systems, is that it can display different screens on different touchpanels simultaneously. So while Grandma chooses a movie from her uniquely designed favorites page, you can do the same on your customized favorites page, as can the kids and your spouse. “Both power-users and technophobes can use the same system without limitation or confusion,” says John Nagy, CineTouch director of product management.

Pick a Palette
Also minimizing the level of graphics design expertise to customize their user interfaces are Control4, Exceptional Innovation, HomeLogic, Savant and Remote Technologies Inc. (RTI). Each company’s programming software comes with a variety of preconfigured designs. “We’ve invested heavily in professionally designed graphics at no charge to the consumer,” says Pete Baker, vice president of sales and marketing at RTI. “Using a feature in our Page Wizard software, the installer can choose from a collection of custom graphic suites. Once they’ve selected a design, the installer can always modify it if they wish.”

Savant takes the personal approach a step further. In addition to having touchpanel screens that are unique to each user, the screens can be unique to the environment. Using the company’s new TrueImage Control technology (below), the touchpanel in the living room can display a color photo of your own living room (your CE pro imports the digital pic into the software). Touching the lamp on that image lets you turn it on or off, or bring up a more detailed control menu. You could control the TV, the motorized shades and the thermostat in a similar manner.

Exceptional Innovation (EI) also offers the opportunity to import digital pictures into your interface. Through a tool called Visual Project, a photo of your room, or of the individual objects you’ll be controlling, can be used as graphics on the user interface. “The installer can implement those into the user interface without having to draw out every device,” says Steve Cashman, EI’s chief strategy officer. “When the interface is able to show items you’re familiar with, it becomes a more personal experience.”

In the case of home control manufacturer Control4, getting personal could be as simple as downloading an app from a manufacturer’s website. The company’s second-generation operating system (OS 2.0) supports this feature, adding a degree of customization that requires very little programming.

“In the past, installers had no choice but to use our own unlock and lock icons on the user interface for controlling Black & Decker electronic locks,” says Control4’s Eric Smith. “Now installers can just go to the Black & Decker website, download the control app, and incorporate it into the user interface for a totally different look. The user interface basically generates itself.” In another example offered by Smith, a user’s Facebook page could be displayed as the main screen of the interface in the den, while a Google calendar app could be on the interface in the kitchen.

Form and Function
Still, CE pros remain cautious about customization. “You walk a fine line between style and ease-of-use,” says Michael Pope, president of Audio Video Interiors, Medina, Ohio. “If the user interface becomes too customized and has too much going on, it can be cumbersome to use.”

For this reason, many CE pros offer their customers a choice of two or three basic preconfigured designs. “Most of our customers seem fine with our choices because it’s an efficient use of their money,” says Pope. However, there’s always the opportunity to tweak that standard template to make it your own. Want your own page of lighting controls? It’s possible with a bit of extra programming.

It’s tough enough for an adult to sift through an enormous video library, let alone a 3-, 5- or 8-year-old. The CE pros at Vivid F/X, Alberta, Canada, designed the screen of the MX-980 Universal Remote Control to take the kids directly to their favorites. The train button (above, “Kids TV”) tunes the TV to Playhouse Disney; the popcorn bucket takes them to a menu of kids’ movies.


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