The Integration Guide to Touchpanels, Remotes, and Control Apps

July 27, 2017

This Integration Guide was sponsored by RTI as a supplement to Residential Systems, August 2017

Control systems, as imagined 10 years ago, are steadily coming into their own. Arguably this newly raised profile is due in large part to the custom integration industry promoting and pushing the benefits that these systems—honed by the likes of RTI, Savant, and Crestron—can provide in making homes not only more efficient, but also fun.

With big-box outlets like Amazon, Apple, and Google finally recognizing the significance of bringing control systems to a wider audience, and the parallel embracing by consumers of the Internet of Things and voice control, custom interfaces to control systems are challenged to stand above what are essentially DIY solutions.

“We always tell clients that you have been able to buy pipe, fittings, glue, and fixtures at the hardware store for decades, yet almost nobody builds a house with the intentions of doing their own plumbing,” said Jason Bellanti, vice president and general manager at Detroit’s Spire Integrated Systems. “It’s impossible to deny that there are many great DIY solutions out there. Some of them offer a great experience that is perfect for the majority of the people. Because of this, we have decided to focus on the luxury market, where custom solutions can really offer a value. These types of clients are looking for a service-based relationship, not to buy a product off the shelf.”

It has always been a mark of distinction for CI integrators and manufacturers alike, to note the service aspect of what they have to offer. When it comes to touchpanels, remotes, and control apps, this has become an imperative, especially as the term “do it yourself” often leaves plenty of room for error, and worse still, the possibility that all features within a given system are not fully used or realized.

“All of these new DIY solutions are great,” noted Joe Mattera, owner of Mattera Design in New York City, “but that’s exactly what it is: do it yourself. Believe it or not, some of these solutions actually do take a little tech and network knowledge to set up. Many people think because it says ‘DIY’ [that] it’s simple. They get frustrated and then call a professional like me. This is when we pitch them a more professional solution compared to a consumer-level one, one where they won’t have to worry about setting it up, updates, monitoring, etc. It simply just works! With a professional setup/system we are alleviating the frustration a consumer may feel, and letting them actually enjoy the integrated solution they wanted without any of the hassles.”

HYBRID SOLUTIONS

The beauty of touchpanels, remotes, and control apps, beyond being the keys to accessing control systems, is their inherent customization. With these three tools, end users are able to set up primary functions and access control features that they use most. This functionality can seem deceptively simple and is perhaps why big-box players use it often to entice consumers to go for their branded solutions. What we all know in the custom integration industry, however, is how easy it is to become entangled in menus and steps that eventually become confusing, and updates that often require end users to stay on top of securing their systems.

Jason Bellanti, from Detroit’s Spire Integrated Systems, acknowledges that there are many great DIY solutions available, but the company remains focused on the luxury market, like this project, where custom solutions can really offer a value.

“We feel that it is possible to create a robust solution; however, ‘secure’ is where there are concerns,” Bellanti said. “We have seen fairly deep integration with Control4 and Savant with Amazon’s Alexa and Sonos. Some of this this works very well together. At the end of the day, you are still at the mercy of those vendors, and any firmware updates or new features that get added can affect reliability. The topic of security will always be a concern in the world of cloud-based storage/data. We would never use the term ‘secure’ when talking about integrating with a DIY-type solution. We use it as an opportunity to educate the client.”

Spire Integrated systems often deals with clients who are uncomfortable switching between three to five apps to control their systems. In a recent project, the team was faced with providing a seamless solution for a client looking to have multi-functionality within several control systems—including control over audio, video, lighting, blinds, cameras, security, and HVAC—via a single app.

“It was also important for them to have true automation for certain functions, such as arming the security system causing the lights to dim, and all AV systems to turn off,” Bellanti said of the integration project. “Also using Savant’s ‘Scenes’ feature, the client is able to create their own modes, such as ‘entertainment’ and ‘evening,’ without needing to call us out to the house for changes. A Ring doorbell-type call station was important to client; however, there is no true integration with that product.”

To address the latter problem, the Spire team implemented a Doorbird station, which offers the same features but adds CI integration with a hardwired network connection and access to triggers when the button is pressed—a solution, Bellanti noted, that is not quite there yet within the DIY space.

The ability to offer a unique solution that plays with DIY and CI-grade solutions is also a skillset employed by the Mattera Design team, with Mattera acknowledging that more CI systems companies are aware of the ever-growing popularity of DIY solutions and products.

“This is why many of them, such as RTI, are constantly updating their control solutions to actually interface with a majority of the DIY brands out there,” Mattera added. “What this means is if a client loves a particular branded DIY solution and doesn’t want to start over again and learn a new interface for a favorite app, we can actually interface that single-user device app within our professional integrated system. Now they have the ability to stick with a single professional interface and don’t have to constantly jump in and out of different apps and independent one-off solutions.”

Joe Mattera, owner of Mattera Design, tells clients that with a professional setup/system his company is alleviating the frustration the consumer may feel, and letting them actually enjoy the integrated solution they wanted without any of the hassles.

Mattera Design recently completed a project with a client who was extremely particular about how a new solution was going to interface with his established Sonos, Nest, and Lutron shade control systems (each had its own handheld remote). Mattera and his team integrated them all through RTI’s ONE control system, giving the client the apps he was used to in a single, seamless automated system.

At AudioVisions, each project features a custom solution using CI-grade brands, including Savant and Crestron as the main control systems. Mark Hoffenberg, president of the Lake Forest, CA, integration company, is clear that AudioVisions and the CI channel at large will continue to exist because large-scale integrated systems cannot be successfully implemented with DIY, but most importantly, while many clients are capable of implementing DIY solutions, they don’t want to it themselves.

“Alexa and Google home are incomplete automation systems for the types of high-end custom solutions that we provide our clients,” Hoffenberg said. “However, voice control in particular is becoming important in the solutions we provide and will become even more important in the near future as the technology continues to mature and more solutions make their way to market. Voice control is an add-on, not a complete solution. It provides a complementary user interface to touchpanels, mobile devices, keypads, and remote controls. They all have their best use case.”

STAVING OFF COMPETITION

Should CI manufacturers of touchpanels, remotes, and control apps be worried? The general consensus is no, in light of what CI-grade solutions have to offer, which is heads and above the big-box competition.

“They will need to make sure their products integrate nicely, and provide solutions that are best suited for the installed systems market rather than DIY,” Hoffenberg said. “One simple example that we demonstrate to our clients in our Experience Center is using Alexa to trigger a scene in Savant. This is particularly empowering for clients, because they can easily build and name the scene by themselves and Alexa will recognize it. By definition, companies like Google and Apple must deliver rather simple-to-implement (DIY) solutions that appeal to the mass market in order to sell in the volumes necessary to be of value to them. This precludes them from creating higher-end solutions that are targeted at the luxury market.”

Continuing to emphasize the relationship with installing dealers is also a way of CI manufacturers of touchpanels and other control devices to maintain an advantage over big-box outlets, a point Bellanti made when he noted, “Whatever ‘brand’ of CI equipment goes in, is only as valuable as the company who is installing it. On the hardware side, low-cost user interfaces such as the Savant Remote and Wally touchpanel can add real value as opposed to using an iPad, as long as the pricing remains in line.”

NEXT-LEVEL CONTROL

With the demand for control systems soaring, it is impossible to ignore the role voice control has come to play in generating interest from the public. Touchpanels and remotes with this feature are a favorite among consumers and that interest isn’t likely to slacken soon.

“Alexa and Google Home are great innovations,” Mattera said. “CI companies are already seeing the potential of these products and making great strides to use them as the main control part of a system, as opposed to a physical touchpanel or handheld remote. It’s the only natural next step in control. We have gone from getting up to physical switches on a wall, to not getting up and picking up a hand device for total control… Next step is to not pick up anything at all, and simply speak.”

Bellanti also made a similar observation, but noted that he has recently encountered clients hesitant to upgrade to control system-based remotes because they are happy using the voice remotes provided by the likes of Comcast and Apple. “I think that the CI companies should pay attention to what [Comcast and Apple] are doing, because this is the new norm,” he warned. “If a client can do everything they need with two remotes, most of them are ok with that. Gone are the days of a tabletop with five remote controls on it.”

Mark Hoffenberg

Hoffenberg believes that the focus should shift from passive control devices that rely on user input, to automated proactive control based on a complex set of conditions, including user habits, location, and usage patterns, combined with external conditions to automatically make intelligent decisions that provide increased convenience, safety, security, and enjoyment, as well as environmental sustainability and reduced energy consumption. This can be accomplished using a mix of smart sensors coupled with artificial intelligence.

“This concept will also move from intelligent homes,” Hoffenberg added, “to intelligent neighborhoods and cities as the adoption of IoT grows, allowing massive amounts of data to be collected, analyzed, and put to use.”

TOUCHPANELS VIEWPOINT

WITH BRANDED DIY CONTROL SOLUTIONS TAKING CENTER STAGE, HOW ARE YOU STAYING COMPETITIVE WITH YOUR CUSTOM TOUCHPANELS, REMOTES, AND CONTROL APPS?

MIKE EVERETT, VP OF GLOBAL SALES, RTI

It’s all about simplicity for the end user, which comes from customization and options. This is where the power of the RTI ecosystem really shines. Using our Integration Designer APEX programming software, RTI dealers have a simple drag-and-drop programming environment that allows the interface to be completely customized to each client and their unique requirements. For advanced two-way programming, pre-built and tested two-way drivers created by RTI allow integrators to easily deliver robust control for their clients, be it integrating with Nest, Sonos, Lutron, Doorbird, etc. The best control solution is flexible and has the ability to evolve. When apps first came on the scene, it was widely considered to be the end of the remote control. But over time people have come to realize that apps are not the complete solution. Along comes voice control, which is also an amazing advancement in the smart home, but it too has its limitations. Ultimately, the installer needs to be able to not only use their expertise of integrating across the ever-growing landscape of devices, but they also must be able to offer their clients the same level of ease across all of their interfaces. The RTI system allows this with a wide range of solutions, from wired to wireless, app-based, and voice control.

TOUCHPANELS PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT

RTI’s CX10 touchpanel features a 10-inch integrated touch-capacitive 1280x800 WXGA-resolution LCD screen, offering a vibrant display supported through an HDBaseT input and stereo speakers. Easy to mount on a countertop or beneath a cabinet, the display has a tilt range from 10 degrees to 90 degrees, with additional user-friendly features such as video intercom support and a built-in composite input to view video from security cameras and other devices. A proximity sensor automatically brings the unit to life when it is approached, while an ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the backlighting for the best visibility. The CX10 can be integrated into a RTI control system and allows direct control of devices via the built-in IR and RS-232 port. For integrators, the CX10 supports wired 10/100 HDBaseT and wireless Ethernet for seamless setup, two-way control and feedback, and convenient programming updates. For reliable operation, the unit is powered by a separate power supply, an RTI CB8 connecting block, or Power over Ethernet Plus.

Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor to Residential Systems.

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