An Abridged History (and the Future) of Home Control

Chapter 4 – Automation Platforms - The Rise of the Machines

In the tradition of piling one technology on another, the next step in control evolution arose in the commercial world for running business and government conference centers. Here, price is nearly no object, because one sucessful presentation can earn millions, or redirect the fate of countries. So the problems of multi-device control have been beaten into submission by brute force, creating ultra-reliable if single-minded systems. Despite incredible prices, these AV automation platforms have migrated to the high-end consumer market.

Due to the somewhat unreliable nature of IR control, two other control schemes have held sway in the professional ranks of control systems – radio frequency (“RF”) and RS-232 (a computer cable communication protocol). Only higher grade equipment uses such systems because they are more expensive to implement, but they provide much more reliable and precise control with feedback on status. Sometimes used is “two-way IR” for a degree of interactivity between the control device and the controlled equipment, but this scheme doubles the likelihood of error on every command because the controller and the controlled must stay in synchronization via the optical link.

New on the scene is a move toward Internet Protocol (IP) communications for advanced wired control. Because IP uses a standard computer network connection, can work at world-wide distances, and is very fast for moving any amount of information bidirectionally, it is increasingly becoming the connection of choice for complex control.

For the new breed of commercial and high-end home systems, a touch-screen is used for input to a real microcomputer that delivers complex-as-ya-wanna-be macros to devices via reliable two-way links. With the tight relationship between controller and device, the state of the devices can be determined, and correct commands are reliably issued.

At last, all is well.

Well… not quite. In order to preserve the versatility that the residential environment demands, the architecture of the typical home theater control automation platform is nearly indistinguishable from that of the universal remote that it replaces. Macros of commands specific to the devices in the system are linked together into chains that represent desired behavior of the devices. Technology assures reliable execution. But the conceptualization of what the user wants still resides in the head of the user. The touch panels make it easy to read and find the buttons that take you to the controls that perform the actions that cause the devices to operate in the manner you intend. Wow. At the core, it remains device-centric, perfectly easy and clear, but only if you already knew what you were doing.

Today, you can find any number of integrators who will build a custom control interface for you and your specific system. It will be a one-of-a-kind creation, with buttons labeled exactly as you ask that do just what you tell them you want. It might even have pretty pictures as backgrounds. Using today’s common programming tools, complex installations become fairly monumental individual works of art. The more equipment and rooms are added, the larger this programming load becomes. And like art, it’s difficult to change and adapt a finished work to accommodate a new taste. Each site is a custom design, with new programming required for every specified feature and device. And since it is made just for you, any changes you want after the fact will require a programming re-write with high expense and delay, even if the original programmer is around to do it. If not, you’ll probably have to start over with a new programmer. Custom features are just a matter of money and time – lots of each. It’s not unusual for a cinema-grade custom control program to cost over $50,000 for the software alone, and take three months of development before installation, plus weeks of on-site tweaks afterwards.

These factors have made development and support for residential customers into a time and money nightmare. Many initially profitable residential AV system integrators have become victims of their success. Support for existing installations can take so much work that building new customer sites becomes impossible, and their practice goes under, leaving the customers without support for their unique creations.

Even with all the resources and money available for the highest-end installations, the problem of multi-room distribution of TV is seldom addressed. Often, the “solution” is to pipe the satellite and cable TV feeds to every room and duplicate the receivers to avoid the problem. But the clutter, expense, and confusion of operation remain.

What has worked for commercial environments has not worked for the home. As we witnessed by watching “The Osbournes” on MTV, even the very rich can have what they consider to be mediocre, incomprehensible, and unreliable home theater control systems. Mere mortals never had a chance at all.

Until now.

History of Remote Control -Introduction
Chapter 1 – From Communications to Music
Chapter 2 – TV goes Mobile
Chapter 3 – One Remote, Two Remote, Three Remote, Four…
This Chapter Automation Platforms – The Rise of the Machines
Chapter 5 – The Next Generation – User and Content Centric Control
Chapter 6 – Multi-zone and Theater Convergence


Copyright 2007 by GP Systems, Inc.