The Integration Guide to Multiroom Control

April 3, 2017

This Integration Guide was sponsored by Peerless-AV and RTI as a supplement to Residential Systems, April 2017

If there is one channel in custom home integration that keeps home technology professionals on their toes, it’s multiroom control. Often guaranteed to elicit a “wow” when done to a high standard, multiroom control taps into consumers’ desire for single gesture or unified orchestration of many of the more often-used actions in the home, including control of lighting, security, and AV entertainment.

As with most projects of any kind, listening to what the client needs and delivering beyond expectations continues to be an effective strategy to keep clients interested in more robust control solutions.
Photo Courtesy of RTI Dealer Out of Sight Technologies Inc. in Maitland, FL

It is, therefore, not surprising that the majority of Internet of Things innovations have focused on drilling down further into the minutiae of home control. With an already captivated and informed audience arguably primed by awareness raised by custom integration professionals over the past 20 years, the likes of Amazon and Google have found a DIY avenue to draw even more consumers in. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as consumer awareness of multiroom control and its newest conductor, voice control, has soared. But as with all shifts in technology focus, adjustments and accommodations need to be made in the industry that started it all.

“The greatest challenge is highlighting the functional differences that distinguish our high-end custom-installed products from these new DIY products and convincing our clients that the increased cost is of value to them,” noted Gordon van Zuiden, president of integration firm, cyberManor Inc. “An integrated Lutron Homeworks system is quite different than a Philips Hue lighting control solution. An integrated Sonos whole-house audio system is quite different than an Amazon Echo. An integrated Mobotix front door, front gate, perimeter camera security solution is quite different that a simple front door Ring solution.”

Making these distinctions comes with its own set of challenges, however, including moving on from what was to what is, as Southtown Audio Video’s president Heather L. Sidorowicz noted when she told RS that her integration firm believes in an “Embrace, Teach, and Expound” approach to encouraging clients to go pro with their multiroom control projects in the face of the growing DIY market—a change that she correlated with the initial resistance to the iPod more than a decade ago.

“Yes, the audio quality was not as good, but the accessibility changed the landscape of our entire industry,” Sidorowicz said. “The IoT-enabled devices are changing it again. With our clients, we discuss the added benefits that industry-approved control systems provide, such as scheduling and the ability to run multiple commands from one button press. Better yet, the house becomes inductive and runs itself without the need to launch a command. Tie these abilities to products like Amazon Echo, and you have a winning solution utilizing the best of both worlds.”

While the benefits of professionally integrated multiroom control are clear and relatively easy to articulate, getting clients to come to the same realization is not always as easy. Explaining the difference between a fully integrated user experience versus the use of multiple, disparate apps to control point solutions, is one challenge highlighted by Jason Griffing, director of business development at Harrison Home Systems, while the cost differences between a DIY-grade system and the deeply customized systems offered by CI pros is another shared by John Sciacca, partner at integration company, Custom Theater and Audio.

“Just as it took a bit of time to get people to realize that a $79 Walmart router wasn’t going to do the job in a modern connected home, it will take some education, and probably people living through poorly designed DIY systems, before they will realize that professionally designed systems deliver better performance and are worth the cost,” Sciacca said.

The Pitch

With so many low-cost solutions in the DIY market to entice consumers to get their home control more friendly, how do CI pros lure them back to (or guide them toward) more powerful, and in many instances, more secure home control systems? As with most projects of any kind, listening to what the client needs and delivering beyond expectations continues to be an effective strategy to keep clients interested in more robust control solutions.

“We listen to our clients and try to find ‘friction’ in their lives,” said Henry Clifford, president of integration firm, Livewire. “We then position whole-home control solutions as a means to remove friction. Each client experiences different pain points, but universal appeal usually centers on the desire for simple control over audio/video and security systems.”

Creating a narrative in which the client’s central needs are effectively addressed with minimal interaction on their part and maximum performance by the system, can often lead them to choose a professionally installed solution that challenges the less operationally streamlined setups that come with using DIY solutions. Inherent in this choice is knowing that “better” costs more.

“I’ve found that analogies can be very effective in framing the conversation about how custom whole-home control compares to most popular consumer brands,” Griffing said. “I like to point out that having multiple apps to control the smart home is in many ways analogous to having multiple remotes on the coffee table to control your entertainment system. This resonates with most users because they’ve all had the unpleasant user experience of fumbling with a confusing array of remotes, or worse yet, trying to explain how to use the system to a perplexed spouse or babysitter. Most users that I’ve spoken with who have used both custom multiroom setups and popular consumer brands understand that the custom option offers a better overall experience, albeit at a more premium price.”

The Pushback

Custom integration’s push back against the onslaught of DIY whole-home solutions is a tango of embracing, rejecting, and modifying aspects of the new player models to not only stay relevant, but also perhaps get ahead of these big-box solutions. Part of this is knowing where you are in the ecosystem, as Clifford pointed out when he asked, “If voice is the future, what can traditional control companies do to make their hardware more API friendly? As an example, Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Jarvis’ home control system, an attempt at eschewing traditional control, is powered by Crestron hardware.”

Cutting the fat that makes custom solutions so much more expensive is also a viable way to stay competitive. As Sciacca insisted, a smart home dimmer shouldn’t cost $150 to $200. “When you start talking about a typical house that might have 30 or more switches,” he added, “this poses a significant price for that entry-to mid-level install.”

This kind of paring down is also in line with making custom solutions easier to understand and operate—a step that Griffing said is what has made DIY solutions so popular.

Custom integration’s push back against the onslaught of DIY whole-home systems is a tango of embracing, rejecting, and modifying aspects of the new player models to not only stay relevant, but also perhaps get ahead of these big-box solutions.

“Smart home startups have universally realized that the bells and whistles consumers care about most are convenience and ease of use,” Griffing said. “From initial setup and pairing, to custom scene programming, to invoking support when needed, multiroom control companies need to examine every step of the user experience (both for the integrator and end user) with an eye toward reducing the amount of effort required.”

Although Griffing never tries to convince his clients to choose a custom whole-home solution (he presents the pros and cons of each solution and lets them decide for themselves) in accessing a client’s checklist, the custom solution can often come out on top.

“A good example I recently went through was on a large, whole-home project where the client came to the table originally thinking only of a popular multiroom audio solution,” Griffing said. “However, further conversations revealed that he was envisioning a very integrated experience when it came to audio and video (i.e., football parties with the game sound pumped throughout the home). While this could have been accomplished using the system he originally asked for, an explanation of a more-integrated experience made it a clear that a more robust multiroom option was a better fit.”

This kind of change of heart by a client for a better, customized whole-home control installation is familiar to Sidorowicz, who recently received an email from a client’s partner asking if her integration team installed Samsung Smart Things. Unfamiliar with the platform, Sidorowicz did her research before replying.

“What I was then able to explain to the client was that the system worked more like a universal remote,” she explained. “You can make one command at a time but can’t launch a scene. Using my house as an example, I explained that I never walk into a dark home since my lights—connected to a Crestron Pyng system—turn on a half hour before dusk. Can an IoT product do the same things a system can? Maybe. However, when you find yourself wasting time fiddling with it, is it improving their quality of life? Or have you just taken the light switch and put it on your phone?”

Shifting Focus

The simple fact is that IoT is changing how home tech pros do business, and while there are still paths to convincing consumers that customization offers better levels of interaction and integrity, the truth is that big players like Amazon and Google offer an undeniably attractive point of entry underpinned by brand recognition and enticing prices as well as a wider audience platform to push innovations such as voice control.

“If the IoT approach they’re in favor of is going to be stable, we advocate adding IP power for remote management and get them into a managed services relationship,” Clifford said of his firm’s solution to satisfying his clients’ IoT requests. “We’re reluctant to pitch an IoT client on true custom control unless we feel like our design won’t have to sacrifice quality to get the budget in line. Unfortunately, because there’s such a difference in price between the two solutions, we often find our best bet is to keep subsystems segmented and remotely manage them as best we can thorough a managed services subscription.”

Accepting that the CI business model has to be tweaked to accommodate IoT-enabled solutions from companies outside of the CI manufacturing universe means also embracing and absorbing its most appealing aspects into a custom integration framework. This is something that van Zuiden has done, revealing that his firm plans to have a fully functional voice-controlled Experience Center showroom by the middle of this year, while also advocating more of a tech-support role for his colleagues—something that Clifford and Sidorowicz also believe will keep home tech pros in business.

“Another great value add that the integrator can offer in multiroom control is one of ongoing personalized technical support,” van Zuiden said. [These] larger companies will have a very difficult time supporting all the individual intelligent products in a client’s home; they have their hands full just supporting their own product in the home. As integrators, we are responsible for the network backbone in these homes and, therefore, have the greatest knowledge and visibility on how to best maintain them.”

Sidorowicz added to this thought: “For us—the technologists—to survive, we have to focus on the solution and the service. Anyone today can purchase a complete bathroom from Lowes or Home Depot, but not many want to install the bathroom, and the plumber has not decreased his hourly rate. We have to let go of being product driven if we want to survive. I have already seen those companies unwilling the change close their doors.”

Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor for Residential Systems.

MULTIROOM CONTROL VIEWPOINT

What have you found to be the most difficult aspects of creating multiroom control with DIY players such as Google and Amazon now in the spotlight?

By MIKE EVERETT, VP OF GLOBAL SALES, RTI

Increasingly, consumers are drawn to the world of automation for the convenience of seeing technology working for them. This has led to a proliferation of smart home devices and DIY options that spark the interest of consumers. Most recently, we’ve seen voice control emerge, and it is indeed an amazing technology, for which we have integration options. For RTI, it’s all about developing a platform that keeps up with the latest advancements—offering integrators the ability to deliver a seamless control experience be it via handheld, in-wall, mobile, voice, or the next evolution, and allowing them to reap the best experience possible. The user experience is the name of the game and our solutions enable complete, custom control over all of the systems so that the user can interact with the interface of their choice.

MULTIROOM CONTROL PRODUCTS

Which of your products best highlight this push back against DIY solutions?

RTI is not focused on pushing back against DIY solutions. Instead, if the technology incorporated into these solutions is creating a “buzz” with consumers, it is our goal to give our dealers a method to integrate with these systems. For instance, Nest was a popular thermostat for DIY’ers, but has also become one of our most popular integration partners. Another example is the growing market for video door stations, for which we have added support via in-wall and wireless products (KX10, KX7, KX3, CX7 and T3x remote control). Additionally, one of the exciting product lines we’ve recently released is our Z-Wave control solutions. The number of devices that are incorporating Z-Wave technology is growing every day and our new interface module is the gateway to enable easy expansion into the vast array of options. This “future proofs” a system, while giving dealers the ability to easily add more rooms and devices to a system
—Mike Everett, VP of global sales, RTI

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