Too Many Networks!

The young industry of home automation is burdened with too many communications options. In previous articles I discussed network developments in North America and elsewhere, as shown in Figure 1. The list of networks continues to grow. Some of the new entrants include Bluetooth, Echonet, HomePNA, HomeRF, ShareWave, and VESA Home Network.

Figure 1. Some Home Automation Networks

Enough already! A consumer market is stimulated not by networks, but by attractive applications. The applications must perform some useful, convenient, and time-savings tasks, and must be simple to operate.

The ease with which the consumer can operate a home automation product or system is of paramount importance. A well-packaged product connected to a high-tech home automation network is useless if the user operates it wrong because of a poorly-designed control interface.

This article explores the functions of a user interface and characteristics of a good one. There is no one optimum user interface. A range of options is discussed; the choice depends on the application.

Functions of a User Interface

User interfaces have evolved from the simple light switch or motor on/off switch introduced in the 1920s. The user interface serves multiple functions and should simultaneously provide the following capabilities:

* Make the functions of the product or system accessible to the user.
* Hide the technology and internal complexity of the product.
* Offer access only to those features intended for customer control. (The customer should not accidentally activate any test modes or unadvertised capabilities.)
* Use terminology, language, and graphics symbols that the customer understands.
* Require as little formal training or reading of the instruction manual as possible. (Who remembers where to find the instruction manual?)
* Provide reasonable default (automatic) actions if the user does not specify.
* Allow input errors to be corrected simply with proper system recovery so the user is not likely to feel lost when entering a sequence of choices.
* Confirm critical or unusual requests from the user.
* Reset to a fail-safe mode if the user input is interrupted or terminated in the midst of a sequence.

User Interfaces for Home Automation

The key design criterion for user interfaces in most consumer products is aesthetics. The controls are blended into the cabinet. The cabinet design tends to follow fashion trends, which change every year or two. We see examples of this in audio/video equipment and in kitchen appliances, where most brands share a similar look in any model year. The ease-of-use of controls is usually secondary to the cabinet design.

Home automation appliances may depend more on user interfaces than on packaging. Most conventional appliances are purchased and operated as independent units. The hallmark of home automation is product interoperation. Therefore, the focus may evolve from individual appliances to a control panel for selecting services across multiple products simultaneously.

For example, upon return home, the user might press the AT HOME switch and perhaps enter a security code. This input would disarm the security system, light the house, adjust the heating or cooling, and turn on an audio system. Thus, the user need not walk to the audio equipment or to other systems elsewhere in the house to operate front-panel controls.

The implication for manufacturers is significant. Brand identity may shift from the cabinet to the user interface. The user interface may no longer be located on the cabinet or on a custom remote-control unit sold with that product. The challenge to the manufacturer is to determine where to locate the company logo. Maybe the physical logo is replaced by a graphic icon on a display.

Varieties of User Interfaces

There is no one optimum user interface. The selection depends on the application. The choice must be tailored to the procedure required for operating the product. Following is a range of input and output options for a user interface:

For displaying information to the user:

* Lights and indicators (LEDs, LCDs)
* A one-line message display
* A wall-mounted panel
* A computer terminal
* A television set
* Voice synthesis

For accepting inputs from the user:

* Soft-keys: the function of each key may change and is indicated on an adjacent display panel, like an automatic teller machine
* Touch screens
* Hand-held remote control units
* A mouse without a wire (uses radio or infrared)
* Voice recognition

A Sampling of User Interfaces

User interfaces are being offered in a range of sizes and functions. Here is a sampling of user interfaces found on home automation products:

Switch Panels

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Phast Remote Control
PHAST produces an integrated home automation system that uses a variety of custom-designed switch panels, including a remote-control unit, as illustrated.
Vantage offers a variety of keypads. The initial application was lighting control. Now these panels provide control for a variety of home automation functions.

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Vantage Switch Panels

Control Panels

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NetMedia Control Panel

NetMedia, Inc. offers the TAB™ Communicator, a wall-mounted unit measuring about seven inches square with multiple keyed inputs. It also contains a speaker for synthesized voice prompts and a microphone for intercom, an infrared transmitter and receiver for remote control, an ambient light sensor, a temperature sensor, and four security sensors.
Smart Corporation provides home control via a custom LCD display with multiple lines and soft-keys for user selections

Smart Corporation Control Panel

Full Screen Display

Savoy Automation provides a full screen personal computer display for the IBM Home Director.

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Savoy Automation Display

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Crestron Touch Screen

Crestron Electronics, Inc. sells a color touch screen that can display menus, icons, and full-motion video.

The Hometouch touch screen is incorporated into a personal computer.

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Hometouch PC Touch Screen

Voice Input

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AVSI BUTLER-IN-A-BOX (formerly Mastervoice) includes voice recognition and synthesis for home automation.

Home Automated Living provides whole-house control via voice input to a personal computer.

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Home Automated Living Voice Control


The variety of user interface components illustrated here is impressive. Yet, more creativity is needed for customers to feel comfortable with home automation products without fear of breaking them or causing mayhem. Any interface must convey the perception that the user is in control and the products are servants.

© Copyright 1999, Kenneth P. Wacks