Let Your iPhone Take Full Control

Many manufacturers are developing apps that make Apple's ubiquitous mobile device a touchpanel controller for automation, lighting, distributed audio and more.

iphone control

Apple's iPhone is doubling as a new type of touchpanel controller these days.

Apple has already sold more than 6 million iPhones, and many home control companies are capitalizing on that trend by engineering their systems to communicate directly with the ubiquitous mobile device, as well as with Apple’s iPod and iPod touch products.

“People depend on their mobile devices for communication and entertainment. Now those same devices can be used to control the home,” says Chuck Hudson, co-founder of Control UI, a software development firm that collaborated with home control systems manufacturer Control4 to develop a software application for the iPhone and iPod touch.

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A Partner or Competitor?
Most home control companies expect Apple’s mobile devices to be used primarily as a means of monitoring and controlling a home’s lights, thermostats and other equipment remotely from the office or the road. However, it’s feasible that the iPhone could also function as a main command center within the home.

Savant’s betting on it, and as a first step toward the migration of these portables into the home space, the company has developed an in-wall Media Dock that allows music and video on an iPhone or iPod Touch to be distributed throughout the house.

SpeakerCraft is particularly bullish about using an iPhone as a wireless remote control. The company’s MODE multiroom audio/video distribution system was designed to be controlled from an unlimited number of iPhone or iPod touch devices. Right from the screen of an iPhone, a user can access audio and video sources, select a song to play, and direct the tune to the appropriate listening zones. “I hate to say it, but this is the beginning of the end for keypads,” says Jeremy Burkhardt, SpreakerCraft president. “Soon any keypad that isn’t emulated on a device like the iPhone will be obsolete.”

Although it remains to be seen whether the iPhone will in fact replace keypads, touchscreens and other home control devices, special iPhone-centric software applications created by home control companies sure make it look as if that could happen. The software mimics the menu layout displayed on the control system’s touchscreens and other interfaces and reshapes it to fit perfectly on the screen of the iPhone, making navigation simple and familiar.

Savant’s application even takes advantage of the gesture controls and tilt sensors found on both the iPhone and iPod touch for the operation of its Rosie line of home control systems. As Craig Spinner, director of marketing, explains, “Instead of having to scroll through items in a control menu, a user could hold the SELECT button on the iPhone and simply move his hand left or right to move the onscreen cursor.”

Apps for Sale, or Free
To make the iPhone’s transition into the role of home control device as painless as possible, software applications from manufacturers including Savant Systems, Crestron and Exceptional Innovation can be downloaded from Apple’s iTune’s app store. Crestron’s app and Exceptional Innovation’s Lifeware app are free to home systems installers; Savant’s offers its app to consumers for $199. Other manufacturers, including Control4, plan to make their apps available on the popular web site, too.

Once the app is downloaded into the iPhone, the device is ready to communicate freely to the home control system to monitor, manage and control the lights, thermostats and other equipment from anywhere inside our outside a house. No web connection is required, which makes for a seamless interaction with the home, says Jason Leonardilli, Exceptional Innovation director of international projects.

Despite the push by some companies to create native, downloadable applications, other home control companies are perfectly comfortable utilizing the web to link systems to the iPhone. “Manufacturers are able to customize their iPhone interfaces to the nth degree by developing special software applications, but those apps will need to be downloaded,” explains Robert Noble, chief technology officer at AMX. “It’s just one more step people will have to take, and we feel people just want the setup to be simple. The web connection allows us to keep it simple.”

Subsystem Approach
The first wave of home control focused iPhone apps are being developed mainly by manufacturers of integrated systems—systems designed to operate a wide range of electronic devices like lights, thermostats, swimming pool pumps and more. A recent app developed by Lutron Electronics, however, focuses only on the control of a home’s lighting. The free downloadable utility turns the iPhone into a control interface for the company’s popular HomeWorks lighting control system.

With some setup by a HomeWorks dealer, the iPhone display could present a virtual keypad that resembles any or all HomeWorks keypads that are installed in the home. If it makes more sense, a dealer can customize a keypad that presents only those buttons that a homeowner might need to use during his or her commute to and from work, for example. A button labeled HOME, for instance, could tell the HomeWorks system to turn on the lights on the front porch, hallway and kitchen. An ENTERTAIN button could prepare the lights for an impromptu evening with friends, and an AWAY command could ensure that all the lights are off as you leave.

Remote access and control of its HomeWorks system is nothing new to Lutron. “Our HomeWorks processor has always supported ‘web keypads,’ which are a capability that lets homeowners access the system through a web browser,” says Phil Scheetz, Lutron home systems marketing manager. “The native iPhone application basically takes that same information and reformats it so that it fits perfectly on the screen of the iPhone.”

Scheetz believes the iPhone is a device perfectly suited for controlling a house’s lights remotely but says that there’s also an opportunity for it to play a huge role inside the home. “It might not replace keypads that are installed in the wall, but consumer might choose the iPhone over a small touchpanel,” says Scheetz. “I could see parents letting their kids use their iPhones rather than spending the money to put a separate touchpanel in each kid’s room.”

Money-Saving Opportunities
Interactive touchpanels to control consumer electronics devices are highly intuitive, easy to navigate and fun to fiddle with. The only problem: It’s the most expensive type of home control interface. Even some higher end remotes can top $500.

That’s part of the reason the iPhone has become so appealing as a home control device, says Tom Cullen, co-founder of Sonos, a manufacturer of wireless multiroom music systems. “By using the iPhone you can get into home control for less.” How much less? In Sonos’ case, about $200 less than what you might spend for Sonos’ $400 CR100 handheld controller.

Once the Sonos free software is downloaded from iPhone App Store into the iPhone, the mobile device can do everything the handheld controller can. You can use it to search for your favorite songs stored on a computer or access an infinite world of music from a variety of Internet radio stations like Pandora and Last.fm, as well as subscription-based services like Napster, Rhapsody and Sirius. The chosen music can be directed to just one room or several rooms throughout the house. Go to www.sonos.com/iphone for a video demonstration of the iPhone application.

To keep the cost of its multiroom music system in check, like the iPhone app these Internet-based music services are free. “For as little as $350 plus the cost of an iPhone, you can have a huge world of music at your fingertips,” Cullen says. “And just imagine: When you walk into your house, you can just pull your phone out of your pocket and turn on the music.”

While the iPhone provides a simple, convenient way to control the Sonos system, the company will still offer its full portfolio of control options, including the CR100, as well as software that enables a PC or Mac computer to order up song choices.

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