The word code, as small and monosyllabic as it is, can be intimidating. And rightfully so, as the languages that govern software and hardware programmingC++, Java, and othersare complex. When it comes to touch panels, programmers have often been the ones to lay down the framework for multiple components and systems to engage under one control device. For system integrators, harnessing that knowledge often means having at least one programmer on staff charged with designing and implementing control system interfaces. For large custom installation firms, this is not necessarily a hardship, but for mid-to-small outfits, retaining a programmer could sometimes cost more than the project on hand.
In recent years, as the custom installation segment has grown, touch panel manufacturers have begun to demystify that string of symbols by pre-installing the most difficult of these processessystem design and integration. They now give integrators more control, not to mention a level of comfort, when it comes to creating the look, feel, and functionality of the user device, by employing a host of intuitive and step-by-step tools such as wizards, drag-and-drop operability, and drop-down windows.
In the history of home automation and home theater control, some of the worst user interfaces I have seen have been developed by programmers, who just put every button they can on the user interface. That really provides complexity for the home owner, observed Scott Norder, executive vice president of business development for AMX. That is to be avoided.
Programming Made Simple
In harmony with its Committed 2 Custom (C2C) motto, RTI has built many time-saving steps into TheaterTouch Designer, its Windows-based programming software. Features include a page wizard with pre-made pages, a set of editing tools for customization of the graphical display, and the ability to add infrared codes to any button via drag-and-drop maneuvering. There is also an impressive library of IR files that is constantly updated, with an RS232 code database in the works.
Clients are getting much more sophisticated, said Pete Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for RTI. They are seeing all of this cool technology. They are also concerned about wall clutter. So, there is a big advantage to integrating technology in the home into one centralized user interface or command point where they can go to one of our touch panels like the K4, and pull up their temperature, access music, or set different lighting scenes all from one great intuitive interface. It is a completely open architecture that is easy to program.
Depending on the scale of the project, integration of RTI touch panels using TheaterTouch can take anywhere from an hour on up. The company also offers a variety of training programs through its Advanced Control University (ACU) for RTI dealers to learn the entire TheaterTouch programming platform. If they invest a few hours either in an onsite class or online class, or even download the training videos from our website, they will be able to program a very advanced touch panel control system, Baker said. Anything from a simple, button-only remote control all the way up to a full VGA color touch panel like a T4 or K4, which in the past they may have been prohibited from doing because they didnt have the staff in place or technical training to do the programming for a more advanced touch panel control system.
The Bigger Picture
A couple of years ago AMX formed a template design group to create a standard that integrators and dealers could use without the aid of a programmer, as well as to implement a standard for the way its user interfaces are deployed and how they host functionality customers could understand. The companys design platform, Visual Architect, utilizes drag-and-drop functionality and is best suited for single master jobs, and has something for just about everyone, including a user interface design template, a code builder, and custom IR capture.
VisualArchitect is a comprehensive tool that can be used by AV business owners, sales people, project managers, and programmers. The drag-and-drop aspect makes it easy to generate touch panel pages that can be shown to a client as a selling tool or for final system design approval, while programmers can create reusable projects that have been pre-tested and coded for the master, as well as step outside of the pre-installed programming to use JAVA. The software also generates a great deal of important paper work, including wiring diagrams, proposals, and pricing sheets.
Also of note is AMXs Device Discovery initiative. More than 150 manufacturers have signed up to the program, which makes their products instantly recognized by an AMX control system, which then downloads its drivers, feeds it into the AMX main controller, and then generates a user interface to control the device. The very import thing about AMX is that we are looking to simplify a complex environment, Norder said, which is made more complex by the fact that there are lots of manufacturers doing their own thing…[Device Discovery] is a rapidly developing standard for the market place that we launched two years ago, and that we have been actively discussing with manufacturers. By the end of the year there will be 250 different products in the market that have Device Discovery, so that they can be plug and played in an AMX system.
Like AMX, Crestron is a stalwart of the control segment, and has for years utilized various methods of making its vast inventory of products integrator friendly. As a mainstay, the company has acquired a comprehensive library of partner manufacturers that has made linking components to Crestron user interfaces that much easier, while providing deep-rooted control.
It is great to be able to drag and drop and make it very easy, but you also have to look at the value of it, said Jeff Singer, Crestrons public relations manager. If there is a bunch of stuff that I want to be able to do with that DVR, that I cant do, then yes, Ive just dragged and dropped and I can save it and I can control that DVR. But now, if I want to start controlling zoom or aspect ratios or format types I have to do that outside of the programming, then all of a sudden the allure of it isnt as significant. Its not just the software, its really the programs, the partnerships, the controls, the modules, the light beyond the icon that you are dragging and dropping.
The companys System Builder platform offers a host of tools, templates, and wizards that take a step-by-step approach to establishing a central control unit. It encompasses other Crestron software, such as VisionTools Pro-e, to create touch-panel projects, and generates system documentation and keypad engraving data. It is pretty self explanatory, but we have an extensive education program, Singer noted. There are a number of different levels of training that we do offer for all of our installers and programmers. They can go all the way through and become certified, but they dont have to. A wizard is pretty intuitive.
Coming Up Rosie
Savant is the newest company on the home automation scene, and its quickly gaining a high profile for its innovative control system, Rosie, which is programmed by its equally as intriguing Racepoint Blueprint software platform. Like many other control manufacturers, the company is concerned with creating a level of easy and comfort for integrators, without a line of code.
You are not building a block diagram of the system and then doing a touch panel, said Craig Spinner, Savants director of marketing. It is an all-in-one environment. We spent two years developing Blueprint. We have written all the code, we have done all of the programming for you, now we are putting the power in the dealers hands.
Spinner means that literally. Blueprint, which at press time was still in beta, is loaded on to an Apple Mac Book Pro computer, which dealers will use to create touch-panel environments using drag-and-drop techniques. A cache of buttons, themes, and component connections are selected from drawers and pulled into the touch panel space, where an integrator can then customize graphically rich onscreen displays to the clients taste.
Like RTI and others, Savant is amassing an impressive catalog of partner manufacturers that stretches across HVAC, AV, security, and lighting, through its Excellence in AV program. According to Victor Saverino, director of product development for the company, Savant logs a manufacturers products and creates profiles of component functions and features using XML protocol. We have all of those pre-installed and pre-tested, Saverino said. From Blueprint, you select the manufacturer, you find the component, drag and drop the component on to our panel. Then any installer, based on their expertise they know how to connect AV components, can drag-and-drop the connections right to those components. When you are done, you push a button called compile, and right there you will see a touch panel built for you with all the sub-service pre-configured.
To bring its dealers up to speed, Savant has planned certification and training courses both at its Massachusetts headquarters and out in the field. We are going to train dealers on XML editor profiling services, Saverino said. They will go through two days of training. We are also going to bring the training on the road with us throughout the U.S. and train dealers if they want to do their own tweaking and quick turns.
ELAN Home Systems roster of touch panels are programmed by the dealer-friendly VIA!TOOLS software platform, which utilizes the wizard approach. In the case of the companys standout Ol Touchpad, installers can download program files via a direct connection from a PC to Ols front-panel USB port. In systems using an ELAN multi-room controller, all Ol Touchpads residing on the ELAN network can be programmed simultaneously.
Programmers are still a vital part of the design and integration process, especially when it comes to installing what amounts to acres of components in especially large homes. But for the installer looking to simply get the DVR, stereo system, and lighting on to one interface, the slew of easily programmable touch panels on the market are opening up doors to projects that they might have avoided due to costa benefit that control systems manufacturers across the board said is at the heart of their continuing efforts to simplify touch-panel design and integration.
I think making advanced programming easier for the integrator is long overdue, said Baker, of the evolution in programming touch panels. Integrated technology in the home is more heavily requested now and more important to consumers. Making the technology easier to offer and implement for the integrator is critical. There are other manufacturers that are doing a great job as well, by making the programming process more efficient and easier to do.
Llanor Alleyne is managing editor of Residential Systems in New York City.