1. Production Homebuilding Makes a Comeback
Housing starts and permits have been rising steadily since 2011. Builder confidence is as high as it’s been since early 2006, the end of the last housing boom. So too is confidence in the home technology sector, so it seems.
“We’re seeing resurgence in the market,” says Greg Rhoades, director of marketing for Leviton Security & Automation.
“It’s not like 2006 and 2007,” he says, but the momentum is strong enough to convince Leviton to rejuvenate its slightly moribund builder program across all home technologies including structured wiring, electrical vehicle chargers, home automation, lighting controls and more.
Leviton and HAI (the home automation company acquired by Leviton) “have had builder programs but they kind of waned when the market waned,” says Rhoades. Now Leviton marketers are investing heavily in programs that simplify the company’s 27,000 SKUs into good-better-best packages, with discounts on model homes and other concessions and tools for builders.
Like the good ol’ days less than a decade ago, manufacturers and builders are buddying up again to offer home technology in “all new homes in such-and-such community.”
Control4 inked a national deal with Toll Brothers that it swears will bear fruit nationally, even though homebuilding tends to be a regional thing. Lennar is deploying Nexia DIY systems, and trying professionally installed security/automation systems from startup Qolsys in its sub-$300,000 homes. Pulte promotes Nexia and ADT Pulse in its communities. Newer control company Clare Controls says it has homebuilder commitments to offer Clare in some 10,000 mostly higher-end spec homes. To date, says Clare CEO Brett Price, the take rate has been about 20 percent, anchored by the home security category.
To be sure, these hyped-up “partnerships” don’t necessarily amount to substantial sell-through as builders and buyers alike slash budgets, but their resurgence is telling.
Source: Consumer Electronics Association
Smart Systems Technologies, a high-volume integrator and #16 in the CE Pro 100, is the go-to low-voltage installer in Southern California for The New Home Company, Standard Pacific and Pulte, to name a few. The builders offer SST’s preferred home-control solution, Elan Home Systems, as options in new homes.
SST owner Craig Curran says, “This was our biggest year in history,” with thousands of installations.
Sure, SST is grabbing some market share from other installers, but much of the company’s success this year was from picking up new builders.
Even so, Curran laments, builders are “still super price-conscious.”
This sentiment was echoed in a 2014 meeting of top home builders, sponsored by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. There, production builders bristled at the idea of adding even a $500 technology amenity, especially given the nightmare of supporting the technology after the sale. That is a reality, or perhaps just a perception, that continues to haunt homebuilders, especially the ones who go with the cheapest startup, which is to say, a lot of them.
Clare’s Brett Price, who was an integrator for many years before launching his home-control business, knows well the war stories of homebuilders in the boom years who stocked up on home technology to compete with the guy down the street, even though prospective buyers didn’t much care about the extra tech goodies.
Builders again ‘receptive
Today spec builders again are “very receptive” to technology, Price says. “They know they have to do it. It really seems like the tipping point was about the time Google purchased Nest, which validated the category. Consumers now actively are talking to builders about it. With the Comcasts of the world, it’s kind of everywhere. When consumers are in a transition point and they’re purchasing a home, they ask about it.”
Homebuilders are taking notice. In 2013, 30 percent of them said it was very important to include the latest in home technologies in order to market new homes.
In fact, 64 percent of them said it was much more or somewhat more important to market home technology now than it was two years ago – substantially higher than in the past, according to research conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association.
Fritz Werder, vice president and general manager for Legrand’s On-Q and NuVo brands (multiroom audio, structured wiring, communications, surveillance) is seeing the rebound not just from sales but from the anecdotal evidence.
“We’re getting more and more inquiries for data from several builder trade media and associations,” he says. “We also see that both the International Builders’ Show and National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) are investing more resources on including technology as a core part of the building industry.”
Three years ago, we named enterprise-grade networking a Top 5 Home Technology Opportunity for 2012. Clearly, that opportunity materialized, but there have been some major impediments to the IP-enabled home, notably, system configuration and security.
Sitting on top of these increasingly robust networks are numerous IP devices that can confound the typical home systems integrator, what with VPNs, firewalls and the potential of opening up ports to hackers.
Even if an installer is savvy enough to optimize multi-device networks today, any disruption of the chain can undermine the entire ecosystem. If a customer changes the home router, for example, all of the connected power managers, thermostats, cameras and home automation systems might go offline until the integrator comes out to re-configure the new device.
“Even if you’re an expert at networking, if your customer buys a new router, you’re hosed.”
– Itai Ben-Gal, CEO, iRule and On Controls, on the new On Controls Connect network appliance
“Even if you’re an expert at networking, if your customer buys a new router, you’re hosed,” says Itai Ben-Gal, CEO of home automation developers iRule and On Controls. In 2014 those home-automation companies and close competitor Roomie Remote, introduced tiny cloud-connected network appliances that take the guesswork out of remote access.
“Just plug it [the appliance] anywhere on the home network, pair it, and you’re done,” says Ben-Gal, noting that users otherwise would have to jump through a few networking hoops to get their systems online.
And that is why the industry is shifting to a cloud-based architecture that offloads network settings to the cloud, where device manufacturers themselves do the heavy lifting. Regardless of what happens at the premises level – new routers, new switches, new hacking threats – the remote servers can adjust quickly.
Furthermore, a cloud solution simplifies management of multiple premises. In the case of the consumer, that means the main house and the cabin. In the case of the integrator, that means the homes of all your customers, all visible and accessible through a single dashboard. You really need the cloud for this extremely valuable feature.
Dustin Fletcher of the integration firm Sound Concepts in Jonesboro, Ark., tells of a single customer with two homes and two airplane hangars, with a total of 30 SnapAV WattBox power management products among all four properties.
With the pre-cloud version of the remotely accessible WattBox, Sound Concepts would have to log into one property or one device at a time. With the new OvrC cloud-enhanced model, Fletcher can view all four properties and all 30 devices in a single dashboard, organizing them based on device type, room, property, status or any number of parameters. And configuration is just a matter of downloading an app and entering a serial number. The products are online, ready to access, configure and control, in mere seconds.
Fletcher also notes that remote power-management pioneer BlueBolt from Panamax operates similarly: “You don’t have to do port forwarding. Just hit the login, hit the app, just plug it in and it works.”
Many of the popular makers of networking and power management products in the custom installation channel have gone the same route. Pakedge last year introduced the Network Patroller, which connects a home network to the cloud without the need for port forwarding or DynDNS. The new BakPak cloud-based app simplifies access to all WAPs and other devices on the network, much like OvrC. Likewise for the new ConnectNinja plug-and-play networking solution from ihiji.
Cloud-networking for home automation
But cloud-based networking is not just for networking devices themselves, nor for power-management products. Many home automation vendors are opting for a cloud-based approach to system configuration and remote access.
“It’s an instant improvement as it acts as a centralized access point the way using VPN with a DNS service acts with security camera remote viewing,” says long-time Control4 dealer and CE Pro contributor Joe Whitaker. “DNS service has always been a part of the services that run on a Control4 system. Now they are utilizing that for secure remote access through the existing 4Sight service.”
In 2014, Crestron followed suit with Pyng, a model for home systems configuration and control that is dramatically simpler than legacy systems because of the cloud component. The cloud element, as well, allows Crestron to log activities from Pyng users to ascertain usage trends that might inform future products.
After CEDIA Expo 2014, I posted an editorial called, “2014: The Year Everything Changed in Home Automation.”
I’m standing by that claim. Certainly on the DIY side, we’ve seen scores of new, increasingly inexpensive systems crop up, only a few of which will be successful but all of which combined demonstrate a wealth of development and interest – and money – in the category.
Ah, money. Have you seen the two-page spreads for Nest in the New York Times? Full-page ads from Alarm.com in airline magazines? Wink’s TV commercial during Thanksgiving football?
Consumers are seeing smart-home messages everywhere, from their local cellphone and home-improvement shops to Super Bowl commercials to yard signs and incessant crowdfunding news.
At the same time, mass-market products are becoming more affordable, easier to install and easier to use. All of this activity on the mass-market side has prompted custom-oriented home-control vendors, along with the integrators who install the stuff, to change their game.
Say goodbye to budget-sapping programming, expensive hardware and, perhaps most importantly, the inability for consumers themselves to make changes to the pricey systems they use every day. Yes, with today’s systems, a user can (gasp) add a light to a scene without having to pay $200 for a programmer.
URC introduced ccGEN2 (shown) and RTI introduced Pro Control – new platforms that are more approachable than the two companies’ traditional home automation controllers
Even rich people want some DIY options
“We have a lot of clients who want to take control of personalizing their system without having to call us, says Troy Bolotnick of Interior Technologies, a Savant dealer in El Segundo, Calif. “Not that they mind calling us, but there are payments involved.”
There is also time involved, Bolotnick notes: “It’s Saturday and they [users] are sitting around and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could just do this ….’ Now they can.”
They can because Savant launched at CEDIA Expo the One App Home, a new platform that empowers users to create and change rooms, scenes, schedules, and even the user interface. And it’s not just for teenage tweakers.
“My customer who is 45 years old and makes millions of dollars isn’t a do-it-yourselfer,” says another Savant dealer, Jason Voorhees of Cantara Design in Costa Mesa, Calif. “But the fact that he can create a scene in 10 minutes called, ‘Getting home from work,’ is a big deal. It definitely puts the client user experience in an area where our industry has never been.”
Everyone’s doing it
ADT, too, is getting into the user-engagement game, adding support for IFTTT – the DIY rules engine – for ADT Pulse, a professionally installed and monitored security and home automation system for the mass market.
One independent ADT dealer, California Security Pro, based in San Ramon, Calif., is gearing up for the launch of the ADT channel on IFTTT. Customer care representative and blogger Taniqua Johnson-Pino set up an IFTTT account and began learning the platform when she heard the news and is playing around with the platform in anticipation of the release.
“I see where people will really see the benefit of integrating ADT Pulse with what they already have,” she says. “It’s just fun. Home automation is a utility but it’s also fun.”
It is true that our industry is long overdue for this paradigm of somewhat-affordable, easily-installable, user-customizable solutions. It took a kick in the pants from the mass market to get us here.
Years ago, URC created Total Control for a more easily programmed and affordable option for dealers and consumers alike, and then ccGEN2 for a more widely available solution. RTI followed with its APEX platform after it had already spun off the more programmer-friendly company Pro Control. At CEDIA, Elan Home Systems introduced the $799 all-inclusive g1 control system, arguably the least expensive of the new crop of budget-friendly home automation systems from the masters; Crestron introduced Pyng, which puts the user in charge; and Control4 debuted Composer Express, which enables entry-level technicians to install and enroll a complete automation, audio and video system before experienced (read: expensive) programmers step in.
“It’s become a labor-saving tool for us,” says Scott Fuelling of Memphis-based Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment. “Our techs can go out [to the job], get all of the devices ID’d, get the system online, and pretty much have everything ready for the programmer.”
In the past, says Fuelling, programmers had to be on the job site to enroll devices into a system—not the best use of time for a class of professionals that is in short supply and high demand. He estimates Express saves the company about 40 percent to 50 percent of programming time.
It is true that our industry is long overdue for this paradigm of somewhat-affordable, easily-installable, user-customizable solutions. It took a kick in the pants from the mass market to get us here after two decades of tradition, but there’s no turning back now.
“In 10 years,” says Voorhees, “we’re going to look back at this as the time when things really started to change.”
On the one hand, integrators will tell you that the term “home automation” is misleading. A truly automated home, they say, will know what you want. You wouldn’t have to press a bunch of buttons. On the other hand, most of them tell us they’re not fond of the concept, known variously as the intuitive home, the learning home, the aware home and the conscious home.
The concept that a home system knows who you are, where you are and what you like – and responds accordingly—is not particularly new. For years, lighting systems have logged behaviors in order to replay realistic scenes for that lived-in look while the homeowners are away. TiVo long ago recommended titles based on the user’s viewing habits. The big fail is that the presumptuous box recorded its recommendations without your (apparent) permission.
“It consumed my hard drive,” recalls integrator Troy Bolotnick of the old TiVo days. The principal of El Segundo, Calif.-based Interior Technologies says, “I like the idea of learning but I don’t think I’ve seen an execution I like.”
Today, TiVo has a more elegant recommendation engine that users can enjoy or ignore – their choice. Indeed it’s the choice that matters, according to Crestron CTO Fred Bargetzi, who says the proper scenario would be a system that suggests, “Hey, I see you’re doing the same thing every day – turning the lights on, turning on the heat. Can I create a preset for you?”
Crestron is in a better position than ever to do just that. With its release of the cloud-enabled Pyng home-control platform, Crestron can capture, in fact it does capture, every little data point – doors opening and closing, music streaming—from every anonymous box.
“Once Pyng goes live, MyCrestron backs up the programming and starts collecting data,” says Bargetzi, emphasizing again and again that all of the collected data is anonymous.
More data points necessary to work
Referring to the insanely popular Nest thermostat – famous both for its industrial design and its learning feature (and for the percentage of users that turn the learning feature off) – Bargetzi notes, “To truly have a home that is conscious, you need more data than Nest has. If it can be aware of all the surroundings – like lighting, HVAC, security and sensors – the more things you can do that’s useful.”
Furthermore, unlike Nest, a truly smart system must keep on learning forever. Emanuel Mercial, COO of Webee Universe, a startup with a whole-house learning automation system, has owned a Nest thermostat for two years. And while he wouldn’t change it for anything else, he says the learning feature is limited: “It’s not that it’s bad, but it stops learning at some point. After that, you have to alter it manually.”
“It’s a really simple concept. As I walk into a room, it knows who I am and it pulls up my own radio presets to be played in that very room.”
– Crestron’s Fred Bargetzi on new PinPoint beacon system
There is another major element to a conscious home, and that is awareness – awareness of who you are, where you are, and where you’re going. This concept is epitomized by so-called geo-fencing: The home knows that all of the occupants are out of the house because the GPS radios in their respective phones tell it so. With the help of services like Alarm.com, the home system might text you with a reminder to arm the security system. At the end of the day, when a system tracking your phones sees that Mom is heading home, it might start to ramp up the heater.
GPS locational services are too macro to work inside the home, though. That’s where Bluetooth beacons come in. These Tiddly Wink-sized nubs can be placed throughout a home and paired with each resident’s phone. Every major home automation vendor will employ them in the next year or two, but for now it’s Crestron, which introduced its PinPoint proximity system at CEDIA Expo 2014.
“It’s a really simple concept,” Bargetzi says. “As I walk into a room, it knows who I am and it pulls up my own radio presets to be played in that very room.”
It’s silly, Bargetzi suggests, that a user who is standing in the bedroom would have to select “bedroom” from a menu of rooms, and then find his particular playlist.
“It’s not glamorous. It’s not sexy. The fundamental concept is location awareness in the home,” he says.
When smart TVs, 3D and to some extent 4K Ultra HD came to town, A/V professionals were, if not unfazed, then skeptical. But new developments in audio seem to bring fresh hope to the home theater industry, with extra channels and new configurations that immerse the viewer in sound.
One of the secrets to the immersion is the addition of height/ceiling channels to the traditional surround-sound layout, delivering the “voice of God,” as it’s known in Auro-3D parlance.
Developed by Auro Technologies, Auro-3D supports up to 13.1 channels and enjoys a small following in the cinematic world from Lucasfilm and DreamWorks. So far, 23 Auro-3D-enabled movies have been released for theaters and Blu-ray discs. Another 45 works are under development. But compatible hardware is scarce, with Datasat leading the pack. The company’s pricey LS10 consumer audio processor was introduced in early 2014.
When it comes to immersive audio, though, Dolby Atmos is ahead, with more titles and multiple manufacturers that serve a broader market than Datasat – Denon, Marantz, Integra, Onkyo, Pioneer and Yamaha, for starters.
It isn’t just ultra-surround-sound that brings immersive entertainment to the home. Consumers have more opportunity than ever to be “in” the action. On the video side:
Curved TVs envelop the viewer.
Virtual Reality will put the user smack in the middle of the action.
4K-resolution displays and content make it look like you’re there.
Motion chairs like those from D-Box make it feel like you’re there.
Soon, we can expect motion channels in the production process, alongside audio and video. The National Hot Rod Association made history last year in partnering with The Guitammer Company and ESPN2 to broadcast races in “4D,” allowing fans at home to feel the rumble of the dragsters in their own living room using the company’s patented tactile broadcast technology.
Sensors on the dragsters captured the real-time force and vibration, and those signals were added to the broadcast as a separate stream of data, alongside the audio and video. The data activated Guitammer’s Buttkicker transducer devices, mounted to the couch, to deliver those reverberations, giving users the feeling of being in the car.
Atmos also has much more of the mindshare as exemplified by CEDIA Expo 2014, where at least six Atmos demos were set up, but nary a peep from Auro-3D.
“It’s awesome,” says Bob Gullo of Electronic Design Group in Piscataway, N.J. Only there was an expletive in there, meaning Atmos is really, really awesome.
“We have two projects right now that are on the drawing board that are spec’d,” he says. Frankly, it doesn’t cost that much more.”
It’s only a matter of a few pennies on the processor side, plus a few extra speakers and some added installation in the ceiling. But even that ceiling labor can be mitigated with upward-firing speakers that are now allowed in the Atmos ecosystem. And they work quite well, according to Larry Pexton of Triad, maker of the Atmos-sanctioned Bronze LR-H speakers with drivers for left, right and height channels. The “bouncies” from the top driver array at times sounds better than dedicated in-ceiling speakers, he says.
Adding this category of product to an Atmos array opens doors wide open for home theater retrofits, says Chad Shell of Stereo Types in Charlottesville, Va. He plans to call all of his existing surround-sound clients to upgrade them to Atmos. He’s that energized by the immersive sound.
“I believe people will hear it,” he says, “but I don’t have to demo it. If I call someone for the first time ever and tell them they’ve got to do it, they will do it.”
Distributor Capitol Sales echoes the sentiment, with CEO Curt Hayes noting that the format isn’t just for discerning listeners.
“The benefits of Dolby Atmos are immediately apparent,” he says. “It may be high end but even the most casual listeners respond after just one listen.”
Back to Gullo, a long-time board member of HTSA, an organization of the country’s top home systems integrators. HTSA, he says, “had a lot of talk at the last meeting about Atmos. HTSA always wants to lead with the latest opportunity. Atmos is going to be awesome. We need to get more product out there, and I think content will come quicker for Atmos than for 4K.”
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