A host of evolving technologies will continue to reshape the technology-integrated home space.
The slow enmeshment of custom residential integration with the quickly emerging smart home market has been a defining theme for many of our industry’s gatherings in the past few years.
It can be argued that custom integration has laid down the frame work for what is now an enthusiastic embracing of all things connected home, smart home, and the ever peaking Internet of Things. In the face of all of this innovation, the custom integration space is in the midst of a dual transformation: refreshing aspects of our channel while incorporating the push toward a smart home concept that now includes telecos, major consumer retailers, governmental policies, and a general public waiting to see where this all goes.
“It is likely that we are going to see some more evolutionary shifts in technology, as well as some large shifts in consumer buying behavior,” noted Peter Aylett, technical director for integration firm Archimedia Middle East, in his January 2016 ‘Best Practice’ HiddenWires column, which highlighted custom integration’s evolution rather than radical revolution.
But what aspects of this quickly changing landscape do integrators need to incorporate to stand as the experts and innovators in an expanding field?
Automation & Entertainment
Consumers—so well versed in swipes, taps, and one-button control thanks in large part to mobile devices—are also now familiar with the gestural and functional aspects of home automation after more than 10 years of exposure to its fantastic possibilities. For Aylett, this year marks the beginning of the commoditisation of home automation, largely driven by IoT ecosystems such as Samsung’s SmartThings.
“Try this exercise: Draw up a functionality matrix for a few of your customers’ systems and compare it to what could be done with commoditised IoT products,” Aylett advised. “Of course, there is still the reliability argument but customers are becoming increasingly savvy to the fact that often you can do more using off-the-shelf consumer products than you can using the hard programmed, rigidly configured stuff we often supply. So, the focus is shifting as are the opportunities.”
Also establishing its footing in the home entertainment space is immersive audio, which has gained industry support over the past two years as the go-to setup for home cinemas, unlike its visual kin, 3D, which has fallen short of consumers’ expectations.
“Moving into this year, we will have a good version of a ‘perfect storm’ as the vast majority of system designers and installers are likely to provision for the extra channels used by Dolby Atmos, DTS:X or Auro3D speakers in a variety of conﬁgurations and the encoded content will multiply through different physical/optical and electronically delivers conduits,” predicted Michael Heiss, CI observer and HiddenWires’ ‘Letter to America’ columnist. “You will no longer be able to call it, ’Just another thing like 3D was’ moving into 2016.”
Heiss also forecasts that ‘sensorization’—or data reporting—of common household devices such as thermostats, water irrigation controllers, and locksets will become more prevalent.
“Going forward we may see the sensor itself as a device that does not control something, but rather reports and leaves it to something else to analyse and react,” Heiss said. “A good example are the sensors that are part of the Ecobee thermostat in my home, or the motion/heat/vibration sensors common to security systems. They report the news, but can’t act on it themselves; that is left to some other connected device.”
Augmented reality and virtual reality are also receiving a lot of attention in the home space, with global online retailer Amazon recently revealing it has approved patents for the creation of a gesture-controlled interface and system that allows users to interact with virtual objects.
“After years of promised introductions, started to a limited degree last year, 2016 may well be the ‘make it or break it’ year for virtual reality and augmented reality,” noted Heiss. “The ability to see created images overlaid on reality, or augmented reality, is somewhat assured of a place on [integrators’] enterprise side for use in presentations and planning.”
Companies such as Google, Samsung, Sony, and Oculus all have virtual reality and augmented reality products hitting shelves this year.
HD Content Delivery
For Aylett in his forecast for 2016, HDMI 2.0/2.0a and HDCP 2.2 will pose the biggest challenge for integrators and will cause confusion among consumers as to which connection type they need to accommodate new 4K sources and HDR video. HDMI 2.0/2.0a, which supports the display of HDR (High Dynamic Range) content, is likely to become mandatory in new installations as we work to deliver products that display the benefits of HDR. It is unlikely that any of the current HDR systems, including Dolby Vision, the newly combined Technicolor/Phillips scheme or the widely used HDR10 approach defined by SMPTE, will gain total prominence.
“HDR is arguably a far bigger advance in display quality than UHD/4K as it’s applicable to any screen size at any viewing distance unlike 4K where you have to be close enough to notice the difference,” Aylett said. “We’ve talked for years about better pixels being more important than more pixels, and HDR combined with ITU Rec.2020 (much wider colour gamut) will deliver on this potential starting in 2016.”
For integrators this means ensuring that clients’ displays as well as supporting components such as surround processors and AVRs are also capable of delivering HDR content.
“For your system eco-systems this will come at a variety of installation costs,” noted Heiss. “The continued price compression for displays will keep size-to-size pricing relatively close to today’s 4K/UHD displays, but the cost will lie elsewhere.
“For example, to insure that the system is capable of dealing with the requirements of 4K and HDR/WCG, make certain that all devices in the chain, particularly AVRs or surround processors include HDMI 2.0a with 600MHz bandwidth and HDCP 2.2. Do the upgrade once so that things will be capable of whatever the content world throws at us in 2016—at least until 8K rears its head sometime later in the decade.”
To enable quick and reliable high-definition streaming content delivery, the home’s networking infrastructure has to be able to handle the heavy output. This has been highlighted over the years with the stratospheric popularity of services such as Netflix and Hulu, and the battles that have been fought with telecos and cable companies to make available the bandwidth needed for viewers to enjoy these services. But, with IoT applications and appliances also gobbling up bandwidth, Aylett encourages integrators to get ahead of potential problems by incorporating networking into their IoT and connected home toolkit.
“Almost every system relies on having a robust network connection these days,” Aylett said. “So many of the horror stories surrounding commoditised IoT stuff is based upon them not having reliable connectivity. This is a domain where we can add huge value as an industry. As the prices of the devices go down, so the price of the network goes up. Get some training on how to install and conﬁgure enterprise grade networking products. Understand how to survey and manage the increasingly complex 2.4 and 5Ghz wireless spaces, and do this using sound engineering principles that you can show your customers.”
As networking has become a core aspect of custom integration so too has remote systems management—the evolutionary upgrade of the truck roll out.
“Now that almost every device touches the network, it is easy to install remote monitoring systems for your customers,” noted Aylett. “These ensure that critical components are monitored to allow you to react to faults before your customers’ even know something is wrong. For those business owners looking for an exit strategy from your company, getting a recurring revenue model into your business is the best way to increase its value. Maintenance contracts based on remote monitoring are an excellent first step to doing this.”
Although IoT as well as smart and connected homes are dominating the technology conversation, most consumers are still interested in what their existing products can do. Believe it or not, being able to control a music system or dim the lights from an iPad are still simple control integrations that most consumers take pleasure in. For many integrators, these clients make up most of their revenue base and are often the most satisfied customers.
“At the high end for the top one percent, there will always be highly bespoke systems,” Aylett said. “For the other 99 percent embrace the IoT revolution and ensure that your customers have awesome experiences across all their technology interactions no matter where they are.”
Llanor Alleyne (@LlanorTech) has reported on the custom integration market for more than 10 years and is the Editor of HiddenWires. Peter Aylett and Michael Heiss contributed to this article.