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Friday, February 1st 2008
News Article

Keep In Touch.
Elegant remotes and custom touch panels offer clients simplified, one-touch control of their AV environments

by Margot Douaihy

The first product designed to control a TV remotely was created by Zenith. Americans have a virtual army of remotes littering their table-tops, four on average, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. While modern remotes are more slender and sleek than their corpulent ancestors, users still need to play the Three-Card Monty of finding what remote links to what, not to mention the game of hitting the IR bulls-eye for successful channel changing. in the 1950s. Nicknamed “Lazy Bones,” this remote, as low-profile as a marble rolling pin, was connected to the TV by a cord.

Fortunately for discerning clients, manufacturers have developed a host of products designed to connect the myriad gadgets of the modern home, while custom installation professionals offer the expertise to bring everything under the aegis of one user-friendly remote or touch panel. Advanced control devices save-space and accent the d├ęcor, satisfying performance and aesthetic needs. What’s more, clients with multi-zone systems can access and control their music, movies, and system status from any room in the home, and even other hemispheres, with the help of IP-access and remote monitoring. For the Lazy Bones clickers of yore, this custom reality must seem as radical as teleportation.

Meet the Control Freaks

Manufacturers such as Crestron, AMX, ELAN Home Systems, Control4, RTI, Niles, NuVo, Savant, Universal Remote Control, Universal Electronics Inc., Xantech, Logitech, Vantage Controls, Colorado vNet, Russound, Philips Pronto, Monster, SpeakerCraft all offer reliable and exciting remote and control solutions for the integrated residential environment. And custom solutions providers well-known for other products, such as ReQuest and Elite Screens, have recently launched gadgets in the control space.

No matter which manufacturer’s products you welcome into your living room, remote and touch panel products should provide the features and metadata display capabilities that give instant access to the home’s subsystems and AV content. Ideally, connections and complicated programming should be invisible to the client so user experience is purely enjoyable and supremely easy.

In-wall keypads offer the ultimate in futuristic “Wow” technology while saving real estate. Table-top versions are ideal for clients who prefer different an ergonomic form factor and “look and feel.” Like a radio with station presets, or “party mode” lighting scenes, control interfaces can also be set for the various system’s sources, so users can easily turn on their favorite music zones by pressing one button or icon.

Whether a handheld remote, in-wall keypad, or a table-top version is selected for integration, the device should offer high-resolution graphics and color, and be equipped to navigate all the functions of a big and bold home theater system.

Back to the Basics

Remotes are those rare products that truly meet a need, rather than create one. A successful remote or panel must be equal parts Cary Grant and Harry Houdini-classic and elegant with supreme flexibility. Unique styling, color-schemes and tilting mechanisms add to the functionality.

Many designers (and recently, consumers) are searching for the organic experience of technology. How they achieve that is fundamentally good ergonomics. How does the navigation move us through each touch panel page?
What is our sense of spatial dynamics? Is the touch panel wide-screen and Wi-Fi? Touch screen technology is more seamless, more of an extension of ourselves, less intrusive.

Interaction with the touch panel should be considered from every angle; custom installers like Don Doss, general manager of the Little Rock branch of Audio Dimensions, want to experience the interface from the client’s perspective, rather than that of a programmer or technician. “We can tie in everything from a pool audio system to the thermostat into a single touch panel for a one touch experience,” he said. What that means for clients, is that the panel can control everything from floorboards to rafters all at the touch of a button.

Simplicity is Key

To most users, the heart of the touch panel or remote isn’t really the heart at all. In fact, it’s the face. As its name suggests, the GUI (graphical user interface) is the face of the integrated AV environment. All the meticulous planning done by the custom installation team is represented by this one gateway.

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. And in the case of remote controls and touch panels, beauty is also in the hands of the beholder. It may be a subjective term, but an attractive simple graphical user interface (GUI) is clean, reusable in its page layout, and offers continuity from screen to screen. Consistency keeps the page flow tidy and pleasant and it also it helps create the expectation of consistency, even among the page/popup/subpage diversity.

With such an integral position the GUI design must be solid, transparent to the end-user, simplified yet fully functional. The marriage of beauty and brains.

An interface also should offer its users quick wins (like customized icons of the grandchildren), and long-term wins. Great interfaces remove the guesswork and make it easy to enjoy the feature set. The iPhone is an example of an interface that checks all the right boxes: form factor, inviting interface, convergence. Also, residential systems products are appraised and evaluated in the same way as the iPhone: how is the user-friendliness, reliability, and performance? Does it work well every time?

Adding Real Value

Branding is another tool of personalization and consistency. The custom installer or programmer should create a hallmark look that is consistent for every project then reuse it. It will have a wider appeal if the installer uses stock solid colors palattes and textures, not an icon or specific theme. Then there is the TV network style of branding; the channels fix a transparent embossed logo in the corner so the background can still be seen behind it but it is never out of sight.

To save dealers time, which ultimately saves the clients money, many manufacturers offer libraries of built-in IR codes and the ability to learn IR codes via an IR eye. Streamlined operation expedites the process in so many ways, which is why URC has made its new MX-980 enables installers to more quickly and effectively customize and automate home theaters and whole-house A/V systems, while the MX-810 focuses on custom control by one user for one home theater or system.

An opportunity to add even more value to a custom system elevates the expertise a contractor offers. Being a luxury service provider means building systems that meet – then exceed – the client’s expectations. IP or remote access fits into this deluxe vendor strategy. Another way to add value is client personalization; some clients request custom graphics for some extra fun, but it’s always essential to maintain a consistent experience across every platform.

What is the Influence of Web 2.0?

Many industry pundits believe that the AV world is becoming less proprietary, more open-architecture, and will more frequently embrace IT. The idea of a converged IP/AV ecosystem is starting to become a reality. A system (and indeed system contractor) agile enough to blend AV and IT is better positioned for future projects. Many companies and programmers are designing their GUIs from left to the right with rich Internet applications, like any other dynamic Web 2.0 experience.

Web 2.0 is the next stage of the Internet evolution- the web being used not just as collection of pages but as a platform, or tool, for personalization. Subsequently, the next crop of control interfaces must reflect this heightened level of interaction and move away from basic information retrieval or client/server applications.

But, does making a page dynamic, ala Web 2.0, neglect good design? Is the user experience given lower priority than the dynamism or personalization? Some believe that designing remotes or touch panel interfaces too closely too Web 2.0 ideals can be detrimental. Being user-friendly is just not enough. Most users want to get in and access their data quickly and easily. Sites must be easy to use, offer recognizable search and navigation tools, and the code must never poke through at the edges.

There is another trend in the residential AV systems markets to note; control is following the trend of other media and migrating to computing stations, IP phones, blackberries, and other workaday devices. “Generation 3″ wireless standards now allow A/V and voice navigation and control on portable
gadgets. What this means for the custom interface depends on who you ask.

IP is Hip

IP is becoming a de-facto industry standard..but why? For one, it is a familiar infrastructure and it is open to anyone, but it can also save money in the long-term by eliminating complicated matrix switches and cabling issues. Good networks should offer a reusable structure for the consistent exchange and delivery of data without corruption or compromise.

There’s another reason IP is a promising development for home electronics manufacturers want to be able to access content (especially high-def digital content) from everywhere in the home. High-bandwith IP and IGNP let them do that. Additionally, lighting-speed GB transmission is coming soon to help move heavier uncompressed video along an IP home network.

Jeff Anderson, president of the Utah-based custom installation firm Aurant, states that future customers are more and more IP savvy and want to experience music and movies throughout their homes and not be limited by bandwidth or storage constraints. “Clients want A/V distribution with whole-house control of HVAC, lights, and security, including remote access,” he asserted. “They don’t want one-box or wireless solutions that are slow, unresponsive, or prone to lock ups. They do not want rooms filled with table-top black boxes, nor want to have to turn on their TV to listen to music. They will be looking for systems integrators who are knowledgeable, trust-worthy, and can ‘make magic in their homes.’”

With over 100 models to choose from, Crestron offers unique touch panels for any home application. Crestron delivers the only touch panels with embedded PCs, built-in MediaMarker annotation and 802.11.a/b/g capabilities. From 3.6-inch to widescreen 17-inch, from handheld to wall mount to desktop designs, from a stylish black anodized bezel to architectural series faceplates, Crestron offers a panel for any budget or performance need. Crestron’s TPS-6L combines a handsome, understated design with a bevy of enabling technologies, high-resolution graphics, and wireless mobility.

SpeakerCraft, well-known for its innovative in-wall speakers, recently debuted its MODE Free RF wireless keypad that displays song information from iPods, music servers, XM tuners and iPhones, which clients can play anywhere in the home. Control has been enhanced through the ability to access any zone in the home. (This means that the MODE Free can be carried throughout various rooms and the user can control them all independently.) Two different docks are available; both the table-top and in-wall docks allow the MODE Free to recharge its internal lithium ion battery.

Keep in Touch

Touch panels and advanced remote controls will dominate the trade and consumer hardware developments in 2008. Most Apple hardware products will include them from this point on, from iPods to Macs. Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft collaborated on a touch-sensitive PC named TouchSmart launched as a complement to Microsoft’s Vista OS.

A good remote and touch panel honors the delicate balance between the electronics and aesthetics, and let clients have the high-impact performance without the clutter of remotes. Frank Marsh, director of Audio Craft in Cleveland, Ohio, said, that in signature Audio Craft systems, movies and music are distributed throughout the house with low-profile, in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, and centrally located touch screen keypads for systems that coalesce. He added, “technology with one-touch operation literally complements — not compromises –the home’s interior design.”

Margot Douaihy is a writer and editor based in New York City.

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About EDG

Founded by Bob Gullo in 1987, EDG is a pioneer in the custom residential electronics industry. Considered by its peers and industry magazines as one of the top residential system integrators in the country, EDG continues to design innovative systems using the latest software and control system technology to bring its clients simple and easy to use solutions. Providing expertise in all aspects of residential environments, EDG is known for: audio/video systems, acoustics, media room design, lighting, HVAC, telecommunications and motorized control of shades, lifts and other devices. EDG is a one-stop solutions provider in the Hi-End residential marketplace.

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