10 Hot Home Automation Trends

Crestron’s UFO-like touchscreen remote

Crestron’s UFO-like touchscreen remote

10 Hot Home Automation Trends

The latest buzz when it comes to managing and controlling your home.

by Lisa Montgomery, from Electronic House, November 11, 2010

Home automation, or home control as it’s also called, is constantly changing. And like most technologies, it improves with age. It gets smarter, less expensive and easier to use each year. We’d be remiss not to mention some of the improvements and enhancements destined to hit the marketplace—and your home—in the very near future. From 1 to 10, in no particular order, here are the hot topics.

1. Snazzy Controls

Operating your home’s lights, thermostats and A/V gear from a touch-sensitive control panel can be fairly boring, unless your panel’s got some snazzy graphics to keep you engaged and entertained. Yes, programming your thermostats to setback automatically can actually be fun.

Home automation manufacturers are making it simpler for home systems installers to add fancy features to touchpanels by including multimedia platforms like Flash, Java and Guifx into their software. Often with a point and click, home systems installers can dress up the panels with animation, unique buttons and colorful backgrounds. They can give the touchpanel the same look and feel of an iPhone, where gestures like finger swipes set an automation scene into motion or “pinching” the screen zooms in a surveillance camera. “This is the kind of stuff that gives automation a real wow factor,” says Jeff Singer, communications director for home automation manufacturer Crestron. “By in large, home systems installers aren’t graphic artists. Now they can be, by just downloading objects from Flash right into their touchpanel designs.”

Most manufacturers believe that the wow shouldn’t stop at the touchpanel. Within their programming software, they’ve given home systems installers the tools to easily import that same graphic layout into other interfaces. The interface resizes itself automatically to fit the screen, be it that of a TV, keypad, remote control or iPad.

Will spiced-up graphics drive up the cost of the user interface? Not as much as you think, and you have Apple and its reasonably priced iPad to thank for that, says Susan Cashen, vice president of marketing for Control4. “Consumers’ expectations are much higher than they were a few years ago,” she notes. “They want sophistication at a good price.” With its Flash-based programming software and $899 price tag, Control4’s new InfinityEdge touchpanel is inching closer the to the $500 benchmark set by the iPad.

Cost no concern? Savant Systems has perhaps the most entertaining interface of all. Its Touch TV products function both as full-fledged high-definition televisions and home control interfaces. Without interrupting the TV program, a user can tap the screen to bring up a menu of control options, from which commands to lights, thermostats, security devices and more can be launched.

Savant’s Touch TV

2. Not Your Father’s Remote … or TV or Telephone

For years, companies like Remote Technologies Inc. (RTI), Universal Remote Control (URC) and Philips Pronto have focused on manufacturing handheld remotes for operating A/V systems and home theater components. While these companies are still great sources for traditional clickers, they’ve broadened their scope to include complete home automation systems. “Operating things is what we do and we want to control everything,” says URC CTO Eric Johnson. So much so, that the company recently changed its name from Universal Remote Control to just URC.

To facilitate the transition from clicker to complete home control, most manufacturers have developed wireless control hubs ($150 to $1,000) that deliver signals from the remote control to the other systems. These hubs, in turn, deliver feedback to the screen of the remote or touchpanel. They’ve also developed technology partnerships with third-party manufacturers. Through these partnerships, the manufacturers collectively develop two-way modules and drivers that allow their respective devices to seamlessly communicate, ultimately forming a network of devices that can be controlled via brand of handheld remote or touchpanel.

“Through the creation of these modules we’ve done all of the heavy lifting for the home systems installer,” says RTI VP of sales and marketing Pete Baker. “He no longer has to write his own scripts and codes to get products to intercommunicate.” For consumers, this results in a system that’s simpler to install and therefore more affordable. And, one that can operate everything from thermostats and lights to irrigation systems and pool controls.

Now that RTI, URC and Philips Pronto have become legitimate automation manufacturers, they’ve had to broaden their own product portfolios to include touchpanels. “We currently have more touchpanels than we do handheld remotes,” says Baker. As he explains, the larger screen of a touchpanel is more suitable than the small screen of a handheld remote for operating lots of subsystems.

You’ll also find automation popping up in devices like A/V receivers, cable boxes and telephones. Sony, for example, employs a feature called Quick Click in some of its receivers, which when configured allows the receiver to operate lights in addition to typical A/V gear. The built-in screen of Panasonic’s KX-NT400 IP network telephone, meanwhile, can be an interface for operating a Control4 automation system.

3. Falling Prices

The remote control manufacturers aren’t the only ones focusing on affordable home control solutions. It’s a common theme across the industry. But nowhere is it more obvious than from high-end companies like Crestron, Elan Home Systems and AMX. They continue to add affordable solutions. “It’s a natural maturation of the technology,” says Singer. “Automation has evolved to the point where it’s no longer perceived to be a luxury.” Adds Elan CTO Bob Farinelli: “There’s enough awareness and demand from consumers now that it’s time to cater to the mass market. Scaling down has become essential in order to compete with folks [like RTI, URC and Pronto] who are heading in the same direction.”

Crestron’s Prodigy and Elan’s g! systems are inching closer to that pricing sweet spot. They cost considerably less than the company’s high-end systems, but still offer many of the same features, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, the Prodigy can distribute six audio and video signals to six zones, compared with the dozens of sources and zones handled by the Crestron’s high-end offerings. And instead of 10-inch color touchpanels, 4- and 6-inch touchpanels are offered with Prodigy.

Paring down processing power is one way Elan is cutting costs. Like others, the company has made its g! system easier and quicker for custom integrators to program and install. As a result, consumers will pay less than they have in the past for labor. “We have developed canned templates that custom integrators can use when designing touchpanel graphics,” says Farinelli. “They can design and install a full system in a lot less time than with a highly customizable, expensive home automation system.”

Elan Home Systems’ new g! system shows how automation is becoming more mainstream.

4. Broader Distribution

As manufacturers continue to streamline and simplify their systems, expect to see design and installation services through a wider variety of channels. In addition to the classic custom electronics professionals, you’ll be able to buy automation from security dealers, electric utilities and cable companies.

This trend is not completely new, as companies like HAI have been selling through security dealers for years. However, “it’s a shift that will gain momentum in the next 12 to 24 months,” says Greg Roberts, vice president of marketing for iControl Networks. His company happens to be spearheading the big distribution push, as biggies like ADT have invested in its ConnectedLife system, a web-based technology designed to be integrated into alarm panels, cable boxes and other mass-market devices.

Available via ADT’s new Pulse system, consumers will get the standard features of an alarm system, plus the ability to control a home’s lights, thermostats, surveillance cameras and other devices via any web-based controller—at an entry level price of $399, plus around $45 for monitoring.

“Home control is a natural extension for us,” says Don Boerema, chief marketing officer for ADT North America. Plus, the market conditions are ripe to go mass market, he adds. “In the past, home automation systems were made up of disparate products. Now those products can be fully integrated. Before, all systems had to be wired into a house, now there are wireless solutions. Systems used to be expensive, now they’re affordable.”

5. Energy Management Makes Its Move

Home automation has rarely been a hot button for consumers. Usually they’re looking for something else, like a home theater, and that’s okay. Home theater is, and continues to be, a great way for consumers to segue into full-blown automation, and many manufacturers offer home theater control systems that can be expanded to include the control of lights, thermostats and other devices.

There’s a new Trojan horse, though, and that’s energy management. As utilities continue to roll out smart grids and look for ways to curb production, and homeowners grow increasingly more energy-conscious, home automation seems the likely solution. “It may be that you can live without high-def video around the house, but when your utilities are running $500 a month, it’s time to do something about it,” says Farinelli.

One of the places manufacturers are starting is at the thermostat. (Studies show that due to the complexity, most homeowners never take the time to program their thermostats, which completely negates their purpose. Per an edict from the EPA, programmable thermostats can no longer be sold as Energy Star-certified devices.)

An automation system can greatly simplify the task of programming thermostats, as well as other energy-hungry devices. Many manufacturers, including Elan, have developed straightforward scheduling programs, accessible on touchpanels, which allow consumers to set up daily adjustments for their thermostats.

URC and Control4 have taken it a step further by integrating energy monitoring features into their systems. Homeowners can see, right on the screen of a user interface, real-time energy usage in kilowatts and dollars spent, for example. They can key in on the main energy guzzlers and pattern their behavior accordingly.

Companies like AMX (pictured), Control4 and URC have integrated energy monitoring features into their systems.

6. Streaming Media

The ability to tap into Internet-based content from providers like Pandora, Netflix and Sirius Radio has been hot for some time, but instead of downloading the data into a dedicated media server or iPhone the way you might do it now, soon you might pull it directly into your home automation system or store it in a cloud-based “digital locker.”

“We envision that you’ll no longer need a hard drive to access content,” says Michael de Nigris, co-founder and CEO of Autonomic Controls, a company that’s developed technology that facilitates global access to content and streaming services. “Instead, you might buy an album, have it reside in a cloud on the Internet, an access from anywhere and from any device.”

He believes it’ll take another two or three years for sans-server setups to become a reality. For now, his company’s Mirage Media Server is providing a solid step in that direction by enabling content to sit in the cloud and home automation systems to control and access that content. From the screen of a home automation interface, users can stream music, view what’s stored in their digital locker and play it wherever and however they want. For example, a user could schedule content like a Pandora station to play in specific zones at predetermined times. Currently, Autonomic’s technology facilitates audio streaming from Pandora, Sirius Radio, XM Broadband and Radio Time, but it shouldn’t be long before video is added to the mix, says de Nigris. The technology can be integrated into home automation systems from AMX, Crestron, HAI, RTI and URC.

Some companies are taking a slightly different approach. Crestron and Savant, for example, offer their own products that can stream in music and movies from a number of content providers. “The beauty is, you don’t have to know who the content provider is to find what you want,” says Singer. Through Crestron’s WorldSearch Technology, the ADMS Intermedia Delivery System scans the Internet based on a keyword you type in (like “Beatles”) and delivers all the related music and movies it can find. “It truly is an aggregator,” says Singer. The user can then browse the list of Beatles content on the screen of a Crestron touchpanel. From there, you can choose which selection you’d like to download and store in the ADMS.

Control4 and Pronto, meanwhile, rely on third-party apps developed for their systems to aggregate and stream. The ProntoTunes app, for example, lets users access and control content on their Apple TV servers and iTunes accounts from one of Pronto’s control panels. And while Control4 has been streaming in content directly to its automation system from Rhapsody for some time, it believes the future partnerships with content providers will be facilitated through apps. “We see our system functioning as a portal to the outside world, not just a portal to systems inside the house” says Cashen.

The Mirage Media Server from Autonomic Controls can feed streaming content from the Internet to a home automation system.

7. Doing It Yourself

Control4 figured that if apps could add functionality to a phone, why not to a home automation system. Last year, the company unveiled its 4Store marketplace, where consumers can download a variety of applications directly to their Control4 automation systems. It’s a concept that’s helped spur a trend whereby consumers are given the tools to easily modify the functionality of their own systems.

Apps are just one way of doing this. Home automation companies are starting to create user-friendly programming platforms through which homeowners can set up simple automation routines. For example, through a special scheduling program, a homeowner could adjust the on and off times for the lights and save those changes. Absolutely no programming experience is required. In many cases the end-user will be able to make changes right at the home control touchpanel.

The shift to self-programming isn’t intended to sabotage the custom installation business. Systems will still need to be installed and programmed initially by a professional. However, consumers will no longer need to schedule an appointment with their pro every time they want to tweak a setting. Ultimately, this saves time and money for both consumers and professional integrators.

8. High-Tech Hotels

Hotels are becoming increasingly more high-tech, and not just in their conference rooms, where automation system have been running the lights and the audio for years. Guests rooms are starting to incorporate touches of automation. You may not even be aware, though, that your room is so smart. Hotels are using automation to operate more efficiently, according to Singer. After you check out, for example, the system might sweep through the room turning off lights, setting back the thermostats and shutting the drapes.

What you might start noticing, though, are rooms that welcome you with soft music, the lights on and the temperature set to your liking. If your hotel is particularly tech-savvy, you may even get the chance to operate the fireplace, drapes, lights and audio/video equipment from one touchscreen-style remote control.

9. Android Adds Mobility

Mobile devices are gaining ground as the primary interface of a home automation system.

“The days of proprietary touchpanels are over,” professes Craig Spinner, director of marketing for Savant. The company recently dropped touchpanels entirely from its product lineup, suggesting instead that homeowners use iPads or iPhones to interact with their home automation systems. Savant, in addition to nearly every manufacturer of home control systems already offers an iPhone and iPad app. Next up: Google Android apps. These apps, currently being beta tested by a number of manufacturers, will let consumers use their Samsung Galaxy Tabs, Dell Streaks and other Android-enabled mobiles to control their home’s electronic systems.

Control4 is giving homeowners the tools to add features to their automation systems simply by downloading an app from its ever-expanding 4Store.

10. Tight Networking

Seamless integration of products is the key to a reliable home automation system. The security system needs to be able to talk to the lighting system, the lighting needs to be able to communicate with the A/V equipment, and so on. A home automation system glues all these various subsystems together so they can operate as one cohesive unit. You press a button on a home control keypad, and all the subsystems respond.

Historically, tight integration required many hours of engineering and programming by a home systems installer, but that’s slowly been changing. While home systems installers still do a fair amount of programming, home automation manufacturers are doing some of the legwork for them by offering not just the main control processor that fuses the systems together, but the subsystems themselves.

Creston offers everything from media servers and A/V distribution systems to lighting systems and thermostats, and recently introduced its first speakers. Savant Systems added a 16-channel digital amp to its lineup of home automation products, and lighting control manufacturer Lutron Electronics is calling itself a provider of complete home control by adding to its lineup thermostats, occupancy sensors and modules that can turn various electronic devices on and off.

Most home automation manufacturers offer options beyond what’s in their own portfolios, as well, thanks to their involvement with Z-Wave and ZigBee technology. These two wireless home networking standards basically provide installers—and homeowners—with the building blocks to a complete home control system made up of products from a variety of manufacturers. It’s a solid concept, offering consumers lots of options and the ability to build their home control systems gradually as their needs or budgets dictate. The popularity of both Z-Wave and ZigBee is on the rise, with more than 400 and 100 certified products, respectfully. And the roosters will likely keep growing, as more industries get into the business of home automation. Utilities, broadband providers and builders like that these networking solutions are affordable, modular and easy to deploy.

Lisa Montgomery – Contributing Writer – has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

Comments on “10 Hot Home Automation Trends

  1. I think there are two other trends driving home automation that were not discussed:

    (1) Home Healthcare – This is the space of Modern Health Talk. Not only are individuals installing motion sensors, lighting controls and other home automation products for home healthcare, but so are Remote Monitoring Service Providers. That includes medical-oriented providers and communication-oriented ones like phone & cable companies.

    (2) Integrated Automotive Systems – As car manufacturers add tightly-integrated technology with ease of use and obvious benefits, they create expectations and demand for integrated home systems. One feature already in modern cars uses buttons on the rear view mirror to replace garage door openers, and they can often also integrate with home lighting systems, so pressing the button to open the door also turns on lights. I’ll write more about the relationship between home and automotive technologies in the future.

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