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by George McKechnie

Imagine being awakened in the middle of the night by suspicious sounds coming from your living room below.  You’ve recently purchased a house that includes all the smart home features important to you and your family—home theater, lighting and shade control, burglar alarm with access control, and surveillance cameras.  That’s great, but what kinds of information do you need right now to help you to assess and respond to this possible intrusion emergency?  Specifically, what information do you want to see, and how do you want it displayed on your smart home controller?  What type of interface is best for this situation—a hand held remote on your nightstand, a touchscreen panel on the wall, or the smartphone that’s currently recharging in your study down the hall?  And who else in the household needs immediate access to this information?

Questions like these are probably farthest from your mind at this critical moment.  But the answers to them will determine how rapidly and effectively you and other household members can respond to what might be an emergency situation—or maybe it’s just the cat.  These factors fall squarely on the human side of the man/machine interface.  And in a moment like this, they can easily be as important as the smart home technologies themselves.  Maybe more important—when you take into account the potential for fear, frustration, human error, delayed help from first responders, and even disaster that can result from non-optimal design and engineering of the user interface.

For most users, it’s the interaction with the controller that largely defines their smart home experience.  See Smart Home Control: Pulling the Pieces TogetherWhile it’s true that the technology itself can fail or malfunction—lights that won’t turn on, smoke detectors that sound false alarms during the night, or motorized drapes that won’t close when needed—these sorts of failures are rare with well-engineered smart home equipment.  Far more common are display panels that are so over-run with apps that it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for, specific apps that are hard to see and confusing to use (especially when you’ve misplaced your reading glasses), devices that rely on internet pathways that are slow or unreliable, or critical sequences of commands that are too complicated to remember when you’re frightened or wakened from a deep sleep.  So let’s look more closely at the variables involved in tailoring the interface to the user.

The User   

Not every household member wants or needs to control every system in the home. Children, for example, should not have access to security or surveillance controls, and probably not to the HVAC controls.  But there are times when it might be easier for everyone if even relatively young kids are allowed some control over the TV or music—especially in their own room.  And it will certainly save energy if they are taught from an early age to turn the lights on and off as they enter and leave a room.

For seniors living at home, access to smart home controls will depend on factors that include their needs, wishes, and capabilities.  For some elders, access to all systems might be appropriate, especially if they are fully functional physically and mentally, and regularly care for the grandchildren.  For those with mobility or memory problems, some control systems might be simplified or even locked out.  And for those with visual or hearing problems, special accommodations can empower them to control systems that are important to their safety and well-being.  See Aging-in-Place: Risk Management for Elders; An Electronic Safety Net for Elders.

For the grownups who are in charge of the home, interfaces can be customized to their specific interests and needs.  A tech-savvy parent might want to have full access to all the smart home control systems—including fine-tuning the color adjustments on the video projector in the home theater, or the scan, tilt, and zoom controls for the security cameras.  A stay-at-home parent, on the other hand, may well insist on simple control of the essentials only, arranged in a way that is as efficient as possible for them to learn and use.

The Interface  

Four main controller types are available today: dedicated hand-held remote controller, large two-hand remote with a color touchscreen, wall-mounted keypad or touch panel, or a smart phone or tablet which runs special apps to control your system.  Each have practical advantages and disadvantages.

Dedicated hand-held remotes are small, light, and convenient—with a form factor and key arrangement that most people know well.  This type of system controller is usually placed right where it’s needed—in the cup holder of your favorite home theater seat, or on your bedside table.  A rechargeable remote comes with a dedicated charging dock, and can operate for a week or two between charges.  Replaceable battery models can go for months of average use between changes.

Most of the keys on the typical hand-held remote are permanently labeled to serve dedicated functions: a Numerical (0-9) Keypad, plus On/Off, Forward, Back, Mute, Pause, Menu, etc—just like on the remotes that are supplied with most AV equipment.   In fact, this key arrangement reflects a bias built into key-based hand-held universal remotes which favors entertainment systems, as they are generally the most complex systems in a smart home that a remote is called upon to control.

An additional set of keys may be present, too.  Surrounding a back-lit display (grey-scale or color), each blank key can be custom-labeled on the screen (with letters, symbols, or even pictures), then programmed to control the function displayed for that key.  As the screen changes, the functions of the keys change as well.

On the Home Page, for example, the keys might be labeled to navigate to the system pages which control each of the elements in your smart home: Home Theater, Distributed Audio, Security, Lighting Control, and HVAC Control, for example.  If you select Distributed Audio, for example, the screen changes to the control page for that system, and now labels the keys for the six zones of music in the house: Living Room, Kitchen, Family Room, Master Bedroom, Guest Room, and Patio.  If you then press the key labeled Living Room on the display, the screen changes again, and the keys are again re-labeled, and now read: Volume, Treble, and Bass, plus other keys which allow the user to choose and navigate through a music source: CD, streamed audio, or even FM radio.  This strategy allows the sound in each room to be changed and adjusted to the preferences of the listener.

These are just a few of the thousands of ways that a system controller can be custom-tailored to the needs of the user.

Hand-held touchscreen remotes are larger than keypad remotes, and generally require two hands to operate.  Because they use touchscreen technology, they have few or no dedicated hard buttons, but can perform any task a keypad remote can do, and more.  Their color screens incorporate a Graphical User Interface (GUI), allowing them to be programmed to display virtually any image or information in any format the user prefers—including, for example, the floor plan for a house which displays the alarm status for all the windows and doors in the home, or images from multiple security system cameras.  And they can be designed and programmed to meet the special needs of household members or of the particular system being controlled.

For those with visual impairments, the labels can be made as large as the user needs, and programmed in a manner that will make using the controller easy and free from frustration.  For someone with very poor eyesight, the display might be divided into four or more color blocks, corresponding to the user’s favorite channels. The user can either remember the station name associated with each color, or simply toggle through the four choices until they find what they want.

A small touch-button can be added in a corner of the screen to convert the display to a standard home page format, when other family members wish to use it.  The large display size and the GUI make color touchscreens ideal for controlling complex smart homes containing multiple systems (when much information must be displayed on the screen), and for visually impaired users (when custom graphic solutions can be used to meet their special adaptive needs).

Wall-mounted controllers, including both keypads and large color touchscreen displays, are usually positioned strategically near exterior doors, to control the systems that may be needed when entering or leaving the home: Security, Lighting Control, HVAC, etc. These controllers may also used in other locations to advantage, in homes that include multiple smart home systems, such as lighting control and multi-room music.

Because they are permanently positioned on or in a wall, these devices are almost always  hard-wired to the equipment they are monitoring and controlling.  This makes them less susceptible to the kinds of interference that occasionally can interrupt communication with wireless hand-held devices. They are also wired to a source of power to run the display, eliminating the need to recharge or replace the batteries.

Wall-mounted touchscreen panels employ the same display technologies that are used in hand-held touchscreen models, and can be custom-tailored in the same ways to monitor and control an almost limitless range of tasks.  Because they are stationary, they cannot walk off or be misplaced, as hand-held remotes can.  But they are not as convenient, since the user must go to them—unless, of course, the hand-held remote goes missing.  Then they become very convenient.

Smart phones and tablets have become very popular in US culture.  Because they are small, relatively inexpensive, and very handy, they are increasingly being used to control smart home features.  Apps to control smart home widgets and systems are now available from many product manufacturers, for both Android and iOS devices.  These devices would appear to be the ideal choice for touchscreen remotes—both hand-held and wall-mounted.  But they can add complexity and other problems when used as smart home controllers, even when the control codes are available for the operating system and for all the products you want.  Here are some important potential limitations:

  • Limited battery life (typically one day) when also used for phone calls, emails, or web surfing.
  • Interruption of use, when the device is used for other purposes, like receiving a phone call
  • Confusion and frustration, if smart home apps are mixed in and displayed with other apps.
  • Small screen size may make them inappropriate for controlling multiple smart home technologies, or those requiring a large image (the floor plan of the home, for example)

To mitigate these problems:

  • restrict the use of the smart phone or tablet to a single task: the control of your smart home
  • avoid loading it up with non-smart home apps
  • charge the battery daily
  • make sure that your smart home manufacturer has proven apps for your phone or tablet
  • make sure the screen is large enough to display the information you need to control all of your smart home systems

To optimize both flexibility and reliability, many smart home owners use their smart phone or tablet as a back-up device—when the dedicated remote isn’t handy—rather than as the primary, go-to controller.

Positioning the Interface 

Now let’s talk about deciding which type of system controller goes where. These decisions are largely determined by how the systems are used within the daily lifestyle patterns of the household.  Here are some suggestions:

  • A hand-held remote is usually the best choice to control the equipment in the home theater. For additional convenience, consider adding the room lighting and HVAC control to the remote, and maybe even a feed from the camera at the front door—and an automated lock—to let in late arrivals!
  • For each room (or zone) of a distributed audio system, use a keypad to allow the listener to choose and navigate through sources and adjust the volume. Consider upgrading to a touchpanel remote in the Master Bedroom, so you can also monitor and control security and  surveillance systems, lighting throughout the home, automated shades, and HVAC zones.
  • Locate wall-mounted keypads or touch-panels inside the doors where you enter and exit the house, to control the security system (and maybe lighting, HVAC, etc).
  • Use basic keypads to control the irrigation system, sauna & steam room, and swimming pool. But consider backing up these systems on larger control panels elsewhere in the home for added convenience.
  • For household members with disabilities, choose a flexible controller which can be tailored to their current adaptive needs, but with enough capacity to modify it later if their needs change.

Of course, any of these standard solutions can and should be adapted to accommodate any specific lifestyle needs or preferences, or unusual physical features of the home.

The Display Layout

A number of different approaches (or combinations of them) can be used to display the information on the screen, depending on the type and amount of information being displayed, and the preferences of the user.  Here are a few useful strategies for the home page:

The Overview.  The home page displays the icons or names for all the smart home systems that are controlled by the interface device.  When the user selects the system desired, the screen page appears with choices for controlling the system selected.  A back button takes the user back to the home page.

Most Frequent Use.  The home page displays the systems which are most often accessed in the location where the controller lives—home theater components for the home theater location, security and lighting for the front door and garage entrances, etc.  Other choices are accessed by pushing the overview button, which provides an overview of all systems.

Lifestyle Patterns.  The home page is organized by Lifestyle Patterns, showing icons for the entertainment features, plus energy management, security, connectivity, and adaptive needs.

Summary   Purchasing and installing a smart home system without giving careful thought to how, where, and by whom the various elements will be controlled is likely to result in frustration, disappointment, and wasted resources.  Paying careful attention to the selection and design of the all-important interface controllers will allow you to get the greatest functionality, satisfaction, and value for your money.  Selecting products that allow the greatest flexibility in design and programming will yield systems that can most easily be tailored to your specific lifestyle need and preferences—now, and in the future.  Likewise, finding a specialist with the expertise to guide you in this process will produce the most rewarding results.  See Tailor the Tech to Your Lifestyle; Find an Expert.

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