September/October, 2012 By Brett Price
Some old, some new, all off-the-shelf: converging technologies have created an entirely new niche within the home automation industry.
Until recently, high-end home automation was all about proprietary hardware running custom software, accessible to users exclusively through branded touch panel interfaces. It required racks of equipment in a specialized area, miles of cable and, often, a swarm of ancillary devices (like IR and RF converters) spread throughout the home to augment system communications. By their very nature, such systems were strictly limited to the very wealthy. In addition to daunting original equipment, installation and integration costs, owners making even simple changes (like upgrading DVD players to Blu-rays) faced steep charges for the reprogramming that the system controller, the touch panels and the remotes would subsequently require.
Today, there are exciting updates to virtually every aspect of that old formula. A convergence of new and existing technologies (especially open, off-the-shelf components) is combining with better tools to lead rapidly toward a point where high end system performance now “fits” homes in much broader markets, both physically and financially.
The last few years have seen an explosion in the use and acceptance of technology, across all measurable demographics. It’s a result, in large part, of the popularity of Apple’s iPads and iPhones, which – among other well-deserved accolades – turned out to be computers for people who say they don’t use computers. And, of course, for millions more who do.
Regular people are using these highly personalized Apple products every single day, and their numbers are rising. They use iPads to help them do their jobs, to make everyday tasks more convenient or more enjoyable, and just to have some fun. It’s a natural progression, then, for them to want to apply the same flexibility, power and overall usability to doing more things, like running their houses. And, as is so often the case, innovation follows demand.
In home automation, cloud technology can be used to tremendous advantage to provide a link between the integrator of a control system and system itself, which runs independently on hardware located in the customer’s home. The cloud does not mean off-site home control: resulting latency and loss-of-communication system failures would be intolerable to the end user market. It also does not necessarily imply a recurring monthly revenue (RMR) business model, although such arrangements are becoming increasingly poplar with service providers looking to capitalize on the growing home automation industry.
The cloud enables a long list of benefits related to the configuration, deployment and maintenance of a home automation system. So much so, in fact, that it is demonstrating an ability to reshape the traditional home automation economic model.
For starters, the cloud lets progressive manufacturers participate in the ongoing maintenance of its installed base, delivering system updates in much the same way that computer manufacturers assure that their products stay up to date. It also allows the integrator to employ a split team installation strategy, with technicians on site to pull wires and place equipment, while the programming staff configures and deploys the system remotely, from the office.
Cloud-based project configuration tools can deliver multi-user, multi-tenant functionality, serving as a safe, centralized location for customer system files. It may also host version control and recovery/rollback tools. When configuration is complete, cloud technology lets the integrator push the project to the system controller in the customer’s home with just a mouse click. Customer system updates used to require unpaid truck rolls (and, therefore, were rarely performed). Cloud-based systems utilizing modular software frameworks enable “Silent Updates” to client’s systems without requiring system shut down, restart or reboot.
Cloud technology can also play an important role in system monitoring. Properly equipped home automation systems can report anomalous behavior (i.e., by individual components or in communications between components) to the integrator….sometimes even before the customer becomes aware that a problem exists. Equipped with this knowledge, the integrator can proactively schedule a maintenance visit, using information forwarded by the system to send the most appropriate technician for the reported problem, with the parts he’s most likely to need. Results include fewer truck rolls, fewer repeat calls and happier customers.
As a business tool, IP networking became technologically mature, stable and widely understood. It has now gone residential, becoming the communication medium of choice in home automation. While you can’t necessarily run an entire home over your network just yet, new IP-controllable devices are coming to market every day. And as many IP-based applications originally earned their wings in demanding specialized commercial environments, they’re bringing powerful new capabilities and benefits to the residential market. Two originally commercial applications – video surveillance and multi-room audio – have significantly advanced the state of residential performance as a direct result of their respective migrations to digital home networks.
Digital surveillance cameras – especially high definition models – are widely known to outperform their analog predecessors. Their long list of benefits includes the ability to take advantage power over Ethernet (PoE) technology, which uses conventional UTP to convey both power and data in a digital surveillance network. Some also offer video analytic capabilities, built right into the cameras. These cameras add programmable intelligence to the video, applying an assortment of counting, directional and object presence/absence filters to the views they provide. As standalones, these cameras can generate alerts when pre-defined rules are violated. When incorporated into a home automation network, these alerts can initiate a wide variety of potentially proactive actions. For instance, video can be captured on a network video recorder (NVR), and streamed onto the end user’s iPhones or iPad interfaces or on the TVs in the home, and visible and/or audible alerts (i.e., lights and spoken warnings) can be triggered in the area where the event was detected.
Commercial audio technology has also come to residential automation networks, to similar advantage. Benefits start with the ability to provide an interface that allows users to select music from multiple sources and to direct it, through an IP-enabled switch/preamp, to one, some or all destinations throughout the home. The benefit is compounded by the ability to incorporate CobraNet technology, which was originally designed to deliver synchronous audio to large areas, like theme parks and sports stadiums. In a home automation scenario, CobraNet lets integrators use the network to provide lossless integration of multiple digital inputs, including the audio from distributed video networks, and to deliver studio-quality sound to multiple locations throughout the home without “lip synch,” the echo side effect common in analog audio distribution systems.
Finally, IP network architecture also allows geographically removed system access – the ability to run your home systems from across the street…or from another country. Because the technology has been thoroughly explored, questions related to this capability, like assuring security and eliminating the need for specialized router configurations, have been resolved.
The maturation of wireless technologies like Z-Wave, coupled with ongoing improvement in the quality of the accompanying devices, is opening new world of home automation possibilities. These products communicate with the system and with each other via wireless mesh technology that doesn’t compete for bandwidth with existing Wi-Fi, data or audio networks. Integrators can basically snap wireless components like thermostats, lighting and shades into their networks. In addition to easing and helping to control cost in original installations, wireless technology also opens the door to potentially painless retrofit. It allows an integrator to add or update functionality in homes with existing wired and/or wireless automation systems, or even to automate existing homes without the need to open (and, later, repair) the walls.
Traditionally, home automation equipment racks were housed in specialized rooms. Requirements ranged from the seemingly mundane – like adequate lighting, a solid surface floor and enough room to service both the front and rear of the racks – to technologically essential, like provision for independently controlled heating and cooling, adequate electrical capacity (often a half dozen 20-amp circuits) and wire run access to the most remote corners of the user’s home. Today, full-featured IP-based home automation systems can be deployed in a standard smart panel – a single-bay enclosure that could house the system controller, a complete multi-room audio system and an audio bridge that enables the integration of PC-based (i.e., streaming internet) audio sources. The potential economic impact of a powerful, economical and easy to install system cannot be overstated.
As mentioned earlier, user interface with traditional home automation systems was accomplished via proprietary touch panels. They were expensive, in regular need of custom reprogramming, not particularly intuitive and utterly without provision to accommodate individual users personal needs or preferences.
That, too, has changed, in a big way. Apple iDevices – iPads, iPhones and iPods – are now the interface devices of choice. They’re affordable (especially relative to the older branded hardware) and famously easy to learn and use. When built using established Apple gestures, graphical home automation controls for iDevices are immediately familiar to most users. Moreover, the ability to deliver the graphical user interface as an App frees manufacturers to give users unprecedented levels of control over their own interfaces. For example, it is now possible for a user to populate personal interface pages with the individual system controls that they choose, adding, deleting and rearranging application icons to suit their own preferences and lifestyles. Even the icons themselves can be customized, with some launching sequences of actions that ease and speed regular activities, like shutting the house down for the night. It’s as easy a managing an iPhone: accomplished completely on demand, and without outside assistance. That’s a 180 degree reversal of the traditional control model’s inflexibility.
Many home automation systems also incorporate wand-style remote controls, which are generally preferred over tablets for control of automated entertainment (i.e., distributed video) systems. Most wand remotes communicated via IR (infrared) or RF (radio frequency) signals. Both types require a network of ancillary conversion devices in order to communicate with IP-based control systems. These devices added cost, labor and an unnecessary layer of potential unreliability to automation systems. Today, users can choose from a growing number of IP-based remotes. Some even incorporate an inbuilt iPod to provide touchscreen control. These remotes communicate directly with automation systems via conventional Wi-Fi, and – when paired with an enabled automation product – can be updated remotely using the same “invisible” mechanism employed to perform system updates. Snap-in remotes based on wireless technologies like Z-Wave will further solidify the migration away from IR and RF wands.
The changes outlined here have created a pair of rapidly rising opportunities. The first is for a vastly expanded end user market, who can now afford the high level of home automation system performance that was, until recently, found only in very high end homes. There are already strong signs that this is translating into demand, as mainstream market builders are reporting growing demand for automation options in their new homes.
The second opportunity is for the integrators and installers who will be called upon to deliver and maintain these products. Established custom home automation integrators may augment their business models with these technologies, using them to take on smaller jobs between their ultra high-end projects. Depending on the types of services they’re already providing, other types of companies wishing to offer home automation may only need to add a few skills (i.e., IP network management) to compete effectively in this growing and potentially rewarding niche. The systems themselves will help: the very best are becoming far easier for non-programmers to integrate and maintain.
Brett Price holds MSEE and MBA degrees from Cornell University. He is CEO of Clare Controls (www.clarecontrols.com), a Sarasota, Florida provider of solutions that streamline the integration, maintenance and monitoring of sophisticated home automation systems. Clare products are deployed locally in customer sites and administered remotely via cloud-based technologies that maximize dealer efficiency while providing unprecedented customer control.