Getting personal with bespoke automation

From isolated houses to interconnected homes, Stuart Pritchard explores a journey from disjointed technologies to fully integrated living, culminating in an era of voice control and AI-driven intelligence.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, houses were dumb. I mean, we never called them that, of course, but they could achieve absolutely diddly squat automatically, couldn’t be remotely monitored for security purposes, and utterly refused to allow any elements of AV to ‘talk’ to each other. These were terrible, terrible times.

This awful state of affairs went on for some time before, finally, skipping neatly over all that X10 stuff, the idea to wire houses for future technological options first saw the light of day, opening up automation for all… who could afford it. Indeed, while this forethought, combined with the later development of truly useful wireless, meant the evolution of the smarthouse began in absolute earnest, the majority of the homeowning public proved to be slow adopters, mostly down to the eye-watering costs most smart systems commanded. But as time passed and the concept of home control grew, elements of ‘intelligence’ started to appear in homes everywhere and a notion once deemed alien to most became commonplace… ish.

Today ‘smart’ in some format can be found in homes everywhere; video doorbells, monitored security cameras and alarm systems, automated lighting and heating and, of course, virtual assistants that can help control the whole lot. However, much of this is DIY ‘smart’ and when it comes to true intelligent home control, the custom installer is still king.

But how has this proliferation of off-the-shelf smart affected the way homeowners view installers and the bespoke intelligent options they offer? Has demand become more personalised as a result and, if so, how is the industry responding? Naturally, we asked the experts…

Automation for the people

Phil Pini, director of residential sales UK, Crestron, has seen the trend for more tailor-made solutions grow and explains how Crestron was quick to respond: “We leaned into creating many more options for homeowners as we developed our latest version of the Crestron Home platform. One of the key focuses of Crestron Home OS 4 is giving more back-end control to the homeowner with an interface that’s incredibly easy for any user to understand. This version further allows for more third-party integration with more opportunities for the driver community to add support for additional devices and features, so if the customer sees something they really want, we can find a solution no matter how ‘niche’ the request might be.”

Savant, has also been busy addressing the rise in demand for bespoke solutions through the flexibility of its scene engine, as Tony Fritts, director, product management, explains: “Savant has a long legacy of offering user-personalisation capability through our scene engine. Users can create and modify scenes that effortlessly control lighting, entertainment, climate, shades and more. Savant’s Daylight Mode, a circadian-based lighting control option, is also customisable by the user.

“At the 2023 CEDIA Expo, Savant unveiled a Siri integration, enabling users to interact with Savant’s smart home ecosystem, creating a ubiquitous, seamless experience throughout the home. Most recently, Savant’s energy management solutions have also leveraged Savant’s scene engine, providing homeowners with critical energy independence and enhanced efficiency.”

So, as was never in any doubt, the technology is fully available to help integrators pander to the particular needs and requirements of every client, no matter how ‘niche’. But that leads us to another important question – how do you work out what a client wants when the client may not even know themselves?

Bill Hensley, head of global marketing at RTI, has faith in the client: “The homeowner likely has a general idea of what they want, but probably does not realise the full extent of what’s possible, so it could be difficult to articulate what they really want. This is where every integrator should begin with their customer – a series of questions to find out about the customer’s lifestyle and how the home could interact with it. This drives the ‘what’s possible’ scenarios for the control – and especially for the automation. The goal at RTI is to enable the unlimited possibilities that lead to true customisation.

“RTI has always delivered an advanced level of customisation, both in the user interface and in the automations that the system drives. A system is only as good as the connections to subsystems it makes possible, so we have a team dedicated to expanding the RTI driver library. And of course, the RTI user interface is 100% customisable. The integrator could start with our Coral interface and its auto-generated pages for a fast install, and then personalise elements to meet the homeowner’s particular request.”

Personal today and tomorrow

Of course, with automation technology becoming so very bespoke, the fear might be that the ability to ‘future-proof’ property might get watered down in the process of tailoring systems to suit. So, how to give the client exactly what they want right now while ensuring that it can still be upgraded and updated when necessary?

“Savant’s IP audio and IP video solutions truly define what it means to be future-proof because they are based on the network infrastructure that is almost infinitely upgradable,” reassures Fritts. “Additionally, Savant has established a Software as a Service (SaaS) model for our smart home ecosystem, a significant step forward for integrators and their clients. The smart home concept evolves over time, and an SaaS-based platform is the best way to keep pace with new technologies.

“A Savant subscription provides access to the latest software and exciting features, and many integrators have realised the value of the service model within their own businesses. During the sales presentation, integrators can talk about system maintenance and enhancements over the life of the home and how an SaaS model bring tremendous value, so that their Savant smart home will only get better as new features and services become available.”

Pini at Crestron, meanwhile, is not a fan of the term ‘future-proof’ but says that Crestron has ensured the hereafter of the home is in safe hands: “We do like to avoid the term ‘future-proof’ in favour of ‘future-ready’. But yes, that’s a benefit of the Crestron Home platform. It’s easy to expand, and it’s constantly being updated. We’ve kept all the updates free to the clients who are already using the Crestron Home OS.

“Of course, the best way to make any installation future-ready can be found right in the name of your publication: pre-wiring and running conduit for later system expansion is always a great idea, no matter the scope of the project.”

RTI’s Hensley is also not a fan of the term ‘future-proof’: “We think of it as being future-ready rather than future-proof. Back to those questions the integrator asks the homeowner, as well as observations they can make. Is the system you are installing maxed out from day one? That’s probably not going to lead to a long-term happy customer. Or something as simple as running extra cable anticipating how a room might be used in the future. Young kids grow into teenagers and their demands on the home change.”

The AIs have it

Now, of all the home tech to emerge of late, the virtual assistant has been the thing that has most grabbed the public imagination and sold like hot cakes to homeowners demanding voice control. While this has meant misery for people actually called Alexa, the popularity of the virtual assistant doesn’t look like diminishing any time soon. But what does that mean for smart home control and are these off-the-shelf solutions up to the smart task?

Pini at Crestron: “I think we’re still slogging out of the ‘trough of disillusionment’ (that’s from the Gartner Hype Cycle, for those who aren’t aware) with some voice products. We’ve worked with, a Voice User Interface (VUI) system built for luxury homes – it’s very responsive and effective. It’s also a great example of edge computing – client requests aren’t going up to the cloud before they’re acted on, and no one’s collecting any data that can be used to study your habits.”

“Most certainly, the power of voice control has continued to expand in the smart home space,” confirms Fritts at Savant. “Over the last five years, Savant has developed AI-driven voice capabilities that allow for natural language voice recognition. Savant’s AI technology interprets a string of natural language voice commands to allow for a simple hands-free experience. Taking the next step, Savant’s AI technology can also be triggered through Siri Shortcuts allowing for additional hands-free automations. The possibilities for applications indoor and out are endless.”

AWE Europe’s Mal Fisher concludes: “Many homeowners want voice control and it is a great benefit for people with restricted sight or mobility, or in a space where using a touch panel or remote is impractical. URC, however, provides the option of ‘press to talk’ on remotes and touch panels, meaning a homeowner’s privacy is much more assured than an ‘always listening’ approach of most consumer gadgets. URC also provides full control via their Total Control system, including control of all AV, lighting, security cameras, locks, thermostats, motorised shades and more. Integrators can create a range of natural language voice commands, rather than the somewhat clunky defaults from lesser solutions.”

Take the power back

That’s bespoke home control, made fine for the future, featuring voice control all in the bag. But getting specific. Just what does today’s manufacturer, integrator and client see as essential to modern custom installation?

Fritts at Savant wastes no time: “Energy efficiency and grid independence are both a growing concern for homeowners given the preponderance of natural disasters and an aging grid infrastructure. Savant has launched a complete smart power solution that allows homeowners to monitor, manage and store external energy sources (solar, wind, and the grid), allowing homes to operate with zero emissions, save homeowners money during peak pricing periods, and ensure that energy is available even when the grid is down.”

Hensley at RTI confirms the importance of efficiency: “Control and automation exists to elevate the customer’s lifestyle and efficiency is a big part of that. When your lighting, climate, and shade control are automated around both comfort and energy efficiency, the homeowner gets a best-of-both benefit.

“Smart thermostats are an easy example of where machine learning is already making an impact. It’s more than just predicting what the homeowner wants at this time of day based on past actions but sharing that information into the home system. Perhaps the day is colder than expected. Let’s not just expect the thermostat to turn up the heat but let’s also raise the south facing shades to let more sunlight in.”

And energy is a big issue for Crestron’s clients too, but from a different angle. Pini explains: “Clients are learning just how impactful a solution such as, say, smart shading can really be. When the user begins to understand that shading has not just a huge impact on a home’s lighting scheme but also its climate control, that’s a real ‘Eureka!’ moment.

“Additionally, the more time people spend in their homes, the more they become aware of the need for better energy conservation. JoAnn Arcenal, my colleague in the States, notes that Crestron recently rolled out two show homes with net-zero status – in fact, one met negative 15 status, meaning that the home was generating more energy than it consumed. Automated shading was a big part of that equation.”

Finally, Fisher, CTO at AWE Europe drives it home: “There’s a sharply rising trend for solutions involving energy management and efficiency in our homes. Instead of the focus on AV devices, installers are making the most of integrating systems that can ‘read’ the weather and client presence to adjust HVAC output to the right levels.

“With URC Total Control the homeowner can monitor and manage subsystems from user interfaces in the home and via an app on their smart devices. Users can also select pre-programmed household modes, including seasonal temperature scenes, with one-touch to manage their home and save energy when they are away.

The evolution continues

Bringing it all together and focusing on the future of the ‘future-ready’ smart home, it’ll be fascinating to see how integrating AI and machine learning will shape and enhance automation, personalisation and predictive analysis in the years to come. Indeed, how it already is…

“Savant has been a successful early adopter of AI and machine learning with the launch of the Savant Smart Network (SSN),” Tony tells us. “With smart home technologies so reliant on a solid wireless foundation, SSN redefines home networking by applying artificial intelligence and powerful cloud-based analytics to create a learning ecosystem that achieves optimal wireless performance throughout the home. Paired with a Savant Smart Networking Subscription, each Savant Smart Network utilises Juniper’s Mist Cloud, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science techniques to optimise user experiences while maintaining the highest standards of user privacy and security.”

Pini at Crestron also sees a bright future for AI, moreover, the possibilities it can open up:  “True AI has the potential to be a game-changer. Imagine a home that acts as a true personal assistant, anticipating needs based on observed behaviour, and you begin to understand the possibilities.

“VUI will also ultimately be positively impacted by the improvement of AI. If you direct your voice-controlled AV system to ‘play ‘A Christmas Carol’ how will the assistant respond? Will it simply ask: ‘Which one?’ or will it ultimately say: ‘You seem to be a big fan of the classic 1951 version with Alistair Sim that’s also called ‘Scrooge.’ Shall I play that film?’ At that point, the home’s systems have begun to become proactive as opposed to reactive.

“Now, take it one step further and consider what kind of positive impact this kind of home could have on those who are aging or those with special needs. While we’ve heard quite a bit about all the negatives of AI, the positives are equally limitless.”

And there you have it, in Pini’s own words: “limitless”. Once upon a time, not so long ago, houses were dumb. But driven by incredible advances in automation and control tech, married to ever-increasing client demand for personalisation, the potential of the smart house will soon be without limit.

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