What’s new in home tech?

I try to stay current on the latest in home entertainment technology. This helps me and my team to understand how our audiences will view and discover their television content.  With that in mind, I visited the annual CEDIA conference — Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association.

These are the folks who design and install home theaters, media rooms, whole house audio and video and home automation.  This year’s expo floor was filled with plenty of big TV’s, digital projectors and screens, comfy theatre seats, home networking and connected devices, remote controls, amps, speakers and automation devices.

A wild TV set up with speakers at the CEDIA Expo.

A wild TV set up with speakers at the CEDIA Expo.

Everyone had an “app” for just about anything.  The biggest change from years past was in the amount of horizontal growth in devices like locks, automatic shades and curtains, energy monitors and lighting and climate tools.  More vendors offering more choices and each with their own operating system — app based — rather than vertically integrated systems like Crestron or Savant or Control 4 where you buy the whole ecosystem from them.

homeseer-e1380725554629-300x225As always I used this as a great opportunity to catch up with my friends from HomeSeer Technologies.  Rich, Mark, Rick and Jon were in full force. HomeSeer is a terrific home automation product  — it’s flexible, easy to use and highly expandable. I have used mine for over a decade — always growing, improving, and learning.  As I say, I don’t fish and I don’t play golf, so my leisure time pursuits are working with home automation and watching sports on TV.  HomeSeer continues to give me a lot to play with.




CEDIA, the digital home, and WAF

cedia_logoOn a recent coast-to-coast commute, I stopped in Indianapolis for my annual visit to the CEDIA Expo, the premier event for the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association. It’s a trade show of home theater and home electronics fanatics, people who design and build home theaters, run corporate screening rooms, and build high-tech homes. At CEDIA, you can see the latest and greatest in everything from digital projectors and big-screen TVs to home theater seats and switchers, amplifiers, digital converters, and even popcorn machines.

The reason I go is to spot trends and observe the latest developments in the digital home entertainment space. I’m always interested in learning more about the context surrounding the viewing experience: How will people watch our shows in the future? What kind of experiences do they seek? And what are the consumer electronics companies and home electronics designers doing to meet those needs?

Madden 2012 on the 22-foot screen at the Future Tech Pavilion (Credit: CEDIA)

Madden 2012 on the 22-foot screen at the Future Tech Pavilion
(Credit: CEDIA)

There’s an entire home media ecosystem that comes together at CEDIA. A leading trend of late is the blending of home management or home automation with home entertainment. You can control your lights, HVAC, security (lots more cameras now that Ethernet cams are less costly), irrigation, open and close shades, and feed the pets. In today’s economy, these offerings are mostly for the higher-end customer. Yet, as with many tech innovations, the most popular features eventually make their way to the mainstream consumer household.

The big trend this year was the migration to iPad and Android apps for tablets and smartphones. There used to be a huge business in selling touch screens. Consumer electronics companies would exhibit dozens of them here. No more. “We can’t compete on price or visibility with Apple,” one dealer told me. So they make and sell apps instead of creating their own closed-end software and touch-screen hardware.

Just like at CES, Apple had no exhibit at CEDIA. But brilliantly, its influence was everywhere as the exhibits were overflowing with apps. So now it’s a battle of whose app is better and what controls what. Speaking of controls, many of the remote control makers are there, and I got a great demo of new units from Universal Remote Control and others. One of the stars of CEDIA is always Crestron, which is the Tiffany & Co. of customer electronic entertainment control. It did not disappoint this year. Besides having the largest exhibit, the company had the cushiest carpet (critical for your feet after walking cement floors all day). I lingered in front of the “custom design and control for sports bar” display for 10 minutes (a veritable lifetime on the conference circuit). Multifeed via matrix switching..multi monitors…instant game switching…it was my version of heaven!

As always, it’s all about customization and simplicity. Give the viewer their choices (“my personal TV” vs. “our family TV”). And make it easy and enjoyable. In my house the WAF has to be very high in order for any new piece of technology to be fully embraced. For those unfamiliar with the term, WAF=Wife Acceptance Factor! My wife insists that the technology in our home is straightforward and easy enough for all members of the family to use. Ultimately, the measure of any device’s success is determined by whether casual users and digital denizens alike can easily operate and enjoy it.

Once I got my CEDIA fix, it was time to take my glimpses of the future and head back to reality. Time to launch a new season, promote new shows, and bring new TV to America once again. How will they enjoy it this year and in future? I’ll be staying tuned to find out.

CEDIA on Twitter

CNET Coverage of CEDIA 2011

Report from the digital den

Talk about the ultimate man cave. I dropped in at the CNET testing headquarters in New York City and visited with two of the smartest guys in the TV/video space, David Katzmaier and John Falcone. I rely on these guys to keep me up to date on all the latest and greatest in TV-viewing technology.

Taking a behind-the-scenes look at CNET's television-reviewing lab.

Taking a behind-the-scenes look at CNET’s television-reviewing lab.

Their man cave was more of a man cavern! It consisted of eight 50-plus-inch Internet-connected HDTVs loaded with all kinds of shows, applications, and add-on devices. It’s their job to review and test the newest products in the digital home space. From TV widgets to Blu-ray players to Roku boxes and Boxee, they had everything a TV technophile could possibly hope for…and a comfy leather couch to boot.

And though it’s exciting to see what’s new and hot, I always remind myself and my staff that mass-market HDTV sets are what the majority of our viewers are working with. According to David and John, the average TV set in the U.S. is a 37-inch LCD that retails for about $500 and is bought at a big-box retailer. That’s how America consumes television.

Naturally, that begs the question of whether (and when) people are willing to upgrade their sets once again to the latest innovation: 3D. As David and John recently reported, Panasonic’s new 50-inch 3D sets, bundled with a Blu-ray player and glasses, are now available in Best Buy stores.

At this point, I’m not so sure that people want special glasses as part of their TV experience at home. People have a hard enough time keeping track of their remote controls–making sure they have ample pairs of compatible glasses could be a chore. In all the research and studies we’ve encountered, simplicity is central to the TV experience; if it’s not easy, people won’t do it. (Stay tuned for future posts here about the impact of 3D on the world of home entertainment.)

For tech geeks like me who are always looking for fresh, new ways to enhance our home viewing experience, the CNET Reviews team offers expert insight. Even if I can’t always make it down to their man cavern, I always keep an eye on CNET’s Television Central to keep tabs on the latest trends and innovations. For now, no matter how you look at it, the digital den is shaping up to be one very cool place.

The smart house

I got into the whole “smart house,” home automation (HA) thing about 11 years ago when reading about how I could get some of the lights inside and outside my house to be controlled automatically. I did some research, and a friend recommended an installer. The timing was perfect, because we were renovating a 100-year-old house that was badly in need of everything. We stripped it to the bones, which was a real treat when it came to running Cat 5 and video cable throughout the whole place. This was before Wi-Fi, before iPods, before LCD TV screens!

The goal was to have the outside lights respond automatically to sunrise and sunset triggers, and also to integrate with the security alarm system.

The installer programmed a home automation system called Stargate. I found it hard to figure out, but it did its job for about 8 years. Then I had some issues and wanted to reprogram, but I couldn’t find the installer. I started looking for a new expert. A lot had changed in that time, so I did a lot of research, evaluation, and conversation.

Eventually, I replaced the Stargate system with one called Homeseer, which is flexible, easy to program, and I can add components and capabilities to it quickly and efficiently. Best of all, it can be accessed via the Web from anywhere in my house or the world. Heaven!

Working with Homeseer and building my system was addictive. Now I know how golfers and fishermen feel: hours and hours of concentration, dedication, frustration, and exhilaration.

Of course, you need a guide, and an expert. Chris Carpentier of Living Automated became mine. As the Homeseer guy in my area, Chris quickly became my “golf buddy.” He is skilled and smart. He is always learning, which is also a wonderful part of this process. Best of all, he’s neat! His wire runs are the tidiest in the county.

Chris and I embarked on the journey, completely rebuilding my home system, integrating all the lights, the sprinkler system, HVAC, security, and video distribution. The key to home automation is just that: automation. You set up how you want everything to work and it shouldn’t need attention beyond the time you want to invest. And it must pass what’s known in the field as the “WAF”: Wife Acceptance Factor. That’s right. It cannot require any heavy lifting from your spouse. The first time something doesn’t work and you are not around, you are busted! You never want to hear, “The lights seemed to go on fine when I turned on the switch, so why are we in the dark now?” Or, “The sprinklers have been on for an hour. Is there a problem?” Or, “The police are here responding to an alarm, but nothing is ringing.” OK. You get it.

The HA community is supported by an eager and knowledgeable group of enthusiasts who comb the message boards to offer help. You learn the answers to questions quickly when you have any problems, and you are soon offering your own experiences to others.

I see the role of HA growing in the areas of home information and energy management, in terms of integrating systems, ensuring a house is secure, and maximizing efficiency. Energy management, such as organizing and conserving lighting, electricity, hot water, heating, and cooling, is a must nowadays.

More to come on this!