Best Practice: The Dangers of Over-Automation

By Peter Aylett, Archimedia Middle East. [caption id="attachment_5998" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Quote from d.Construct '13 'Communicating with Machines' conference.[/caption] Whenever I discuss the above quote, the first thing that comes into people's minds is the concept of 'smart' home automation - your house has anticipated your needs, leaving you to get on with the task at hand. Unfortunately, today's systems are simply not intelligent enough to take account of the myriad variables that dictate our mood, our health, the environment around us and how we interact with others. System programming relies largely on conditional logic; if this, then that. Though we can introduce other inputs such as time of day, temperature and occupancy, these are too limited in scope to truly predict our needs. Automation Should Enhance the Experience We need to be mindful that when it comes to experiences, we are all largely looking for the same thing. Whatever the medium, from listening to music on a high-quality system through creating a gastronomic extravaganza in our new kitchen, we need a human connection - an emotional response that gives the experience real value. With the almost limitless possibilities presented by today's fast-changing technologies, we are in danger of over-thinking the possibilities and over-automating our customers' homes to the point that the technology ceases to be invisible, and actually gets in the way. Just because it can be done, does not mean it should be done. [caption id="attachment_6000" align="aligncenter" width="471"] With one button press a home cinema can be ready to go.[/caption] Let me give you an example that many of you will be familiar with. In a media room, when a video input is selected, the lights automatically dim to the 'Watch Something' lighting scene. Whilst this is a popular automation macro, I do not consider it either invisible, or an experience. What if I am cueing up a movie but others have yet to join me? What if it is something I want to watch in a more social setup with the lights on? What if I want to read something? Consider instead designing the user interface to deliver control of the environment in an intuitive way from every source control page. The following are some tips to avoid the over-automation scenario: Every Customer is Different Every company has its favourite automation macros. It is important, however, to implement not just these in every system, but to consider first the users of the property. It is human nature that if we are offered something for 'free', we will take it! Consider the lifestyles of the users of the home and only suggest functionality that you consider to be genuinely useful to them. We are paid to be the experts that guide our customers towards making the right choices for technology in their home. Arrange User Interfaces Screens by Use Scenario Rather than Subsystem Always consider what a user is doing, not just what a touchscreen is there to control. If it is 'Watching Satellite', consider putting basic HVAC and lighting environmental controls alongside controls for the satellite receiver, and volume/mute control. There is a tendency to recreate on a touchscreen all of the functions that would appear on a device's IR remote control, but consider how many of these actually get used on a day-to-day basis. If the infrequently-used functions are removed to a sub-page, then space is liberated to include environmental controls. It is far more intuitive to design user interfaces that, given a certain use scenario, put all of the controls on a single page rather than having to go, for instance, to a lighting control page and then back to the source control page. Use Occupancy Sensors Cautiously Occupancy sensors are an essential input into automation systems. In all cases, when these are programmed, consider how a space will be used and put in the correct 'Off' delay. Be cautious about using occupancy sensing in common areas, and put in an 'Override' function for the client that disables occupancy-driven 'Off' functions when, for instance, the house is being used for entertaining. [caption id="attachment_5999" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Example of detection range and angle of occupancy sensors in a home.[/caption] Also, ensure that you consider the detection range and angle of occupancy sensors. Often only installing one in the middle of a hallway will need a user to have already walked into the hallway before a light comes on. Consider people's movement around the building and position sensors to ensure that a light comes on before a person has entered a space and not when they are already two metres into it. Things are About to Change.. Automation systems are about to get a lot smarter. It will not be long before location awareness, i.e. the system knowing where each individual user is at all times, is a reality. Apple's iBeacon technology is an example of this that will remove that annoying 'Where am I?' first step when using a whole-house touchscreen control. [caption id="attachment_6001" align="aligncenter" width="439"] The Estimote Beacon uses licensed Apple iBeacon technology to communicate with smartphones that are as close as four inches away, or as far as 200 feet away.[/caption] This will be further enhanced by the next generation of wearable technologies (watch this space for news of Apple's iWatch) that will be capable of reading biometric data from the user. Let's hope that APIs (Application Programming Interfaces that allow access to devices from third party systems) will be available to allow control systems access to this data. With current automation functions rarely being aware of who the specific user is, or who has entered a space, the future will allow us to have specific conditional logic programming tailored to specific users when they are in specific spaces. Conclusion Automation should be about people, not technology. Always consider if an automation function truly enhances an experience, and consider instead designing scenario-based user interfaces that put simple control only one button press away. Peter Aylett is a world-renowned speaker and lecturer in residential technology, and the Technical Director at Archimedia, a multinational high-end residential integrator in The Middle East. He is also currently Chair of CEDIA’s International Technology Council Applied Content Action Team, and a regular contributor to HiddenWires. You are welcome to comment on this article. See below.

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