With Savant’s TrueImage Control interface, users can turn on lights, open shades, and activate other smart home technologies, by simply touching the image of the object. 

The latest generation in touch panel technology enhances both usability and aesthetics. New interfaces, such as this one from Savant, are touch and gesture responsive and can overlay photos or live video.

It all started with an apple. Or so legend has it that Sir Isaac Newton’s study of gravity began with an apple falling on his head. And so it may be with the future of user interfaces in home automation. Although touch screen technology has been around for years, especially in the high end AV market, Apple Computer’s iPhone may have set consumers on a quest for interactive control at their fingertips.

“The iPhone was a real game changer in touch panels,” says Dave Pedigo, senior director of technology at Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). In terms of technology and utility, the iPhone has had a significant impact on the industry. “I think Apple revolutionized a lot in regard to the small handheld touch screen,” Pedigo adds. “We’re getting used to being able to do everything.”

Craig Spinner, director of marketing for Osterville, Mass.-based Savant Systems, agrees. “The iPhone is such an important part of the user’s life.” He adds, “Consumers are now realizing the power of the device and demanding that technology.”

Indeed, most industry experts agree that the iPhone has had a tremendous impact on home automation, security and entertainment. More and more people are interacting with touch screens in their daily lives. Consumer familiarity with touch screen technology in handheld devices has made them increasingly comfortable with the technology, reducing the need for residential integrators to educate them about the new products and increasing customer demand for touch panel interfaces and their many features.


“The biggest desire of the homeowner is simplicity,” says Thomas Pickral, Jr., director of business development for Home Automation Inc., based in New Orleans. “The iPhone and iPod Touch have driven consumer awareness of the ease of the touch screen. The expectation now is that the [home automation] systems will be easy to use.”

As they have become accustomed to having with their smart phones, when it comes to home automation and control, consumers are looking for intuitive devices that have the ability to control multiple systems. Consequently, touch screens — combined with improved wireless technology and IP networking — are becoming increasingly common in home automation and entertainment systems.

Although touch screens have been available for higher-end installations, particularly in the AV markets, since the 1990s, declining technology costs are making touch panel interfaces available in a lower range of price points.

Shawn Lemay is president of Sound and Theater in Williamsville, N.Y., a company that focuses on the mid-level market. Now that high-quality devices are available at lower price points, he has “little to no problem selling touch screens.”

Customer familiarity with the iPhone and iPod Touch makes them eager to adopt touch screen interfaces in their homes.

“When they see it, they like it,” Lemay exclaims. The prices still make them hesitate, but he finds if he can get the touch screens into his customers’ hands, they often add them to the system. Lemay will loan a touch panel to customers on a trial basis. “We let the customer play with it. When we try to go back to pick up the touch screen, they say ‘No, we want to keep it.’”


As consumers become accustomed to the functionality and convenience of their iPhones, those expectations spread to their choices in home automation. “People don’t want to be tethered. The want to control all of their systems together,” believes Cynthia Menna, senior director of business development for home integration solutions distributor AVAD.

Touch panels — combined with advances in wireless and networking capabilities — provide an opportunity for homeowners to integrate and centrally control multiple systems, providing easy access and control of energy management, heating and air conditioning, lighting, security, and entertainment from a single interface.

The pattern of integrating systems and centralizing control in the home is paralleled by changes in the industry as a whole. Menna predicts that in order to meet consumer demand for converging technologies, residential contractors are going to have to rethink their business approaches. She encourages them to look at the broader picture and to keep abreast of new technology and customer demand.

Touch screens are ideally suited to support Internet protocol (IP)-based systems, providing homeowners with easy ways to control multiple home automation systems within the home, as well as remote access outside of it.

Energy concerns are also fueling the demand for touch screens and related technologies. Customers are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint. Touch screens make smart home automation systems more accessible to the consumer. Homeowners can monitor energy consumption, adjust heating and lighting, and more from a single touch panel.

Consumers are not the only ones driving demand from the energy side. Utilities want to implement dynamic pricing and are deploying smart meters to facilitate that. According to Eric Smith, chief technology officer at Control4, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, to get consumers to go along with it, the utilities are adding features that the consumers want, such as touch screen thermostat control and energy use monitoring. He anticipates that touch screen will become ubiquitous in the home. “It could be energy driving that — something that entertainment has historically done,” he thinks.


Regardless of the source, with the industry headed towards greater systems integration through networking and centralized control via touch panel interfaces, residential integrators need to be prepared. Menna notes that it is a good time for contractors to evaluate their business approach. “It’s going to demand that some step up and offer new services,” she says. While that may take some residential installers out of their comfort zone, as they have to learn the newer technologies, she emphasizes that the convergence of systems is a good thing: “It’s a win-win situation. Stepping up everyone’s game a bit and becoming more of a whole system solution provider to the consumer.”

Dave Pedigo of CEDIA understands that it may be a challenge for residential integrators, but he sees it as an opportunity: “It’s good for the consumer, but it’s difficult to figure out how to monetize it.” He remarks that touch screens, along with networking and wireless technologies, have “changed the way individuals do business. Basically, it will become a more service and labor-oriented market.

“Contractors can’t be scared that these things will drive them out,” Pedigo says. He encourages them to step back and look at the opportunities available.

He says that everything is becoming networked at this point. He encourages contractors who are not networking specialists to take advantage of training opportunities at CEDIA and elsewhere to learn it. “It’s time to embrace the network,” he says. “Figure out the best way to capitalize on it. If you’re not going to make money on it, someone else will.”

He notes that touch screens play a key role in network solutions. “The main thing touch screens will do is create portability for clients — both home and away.”

Residential network solutions controlled by a touch screen interface offer several opportunities for integrators to expand their business. Touch-screen savvy customers are demanding new interfaces and more features.

Advances in wireless technology make retrofits easier and reduce installation time. For new installations or retrofits, the reduced labor time presents another opportunity, Pedigo says. “Installers will not spend as much time in one home, but can do more homes with lower cost.”


Not all integrators are ready to fully embrace touch screen controls for all of their installations. Though prices have come down, cost is still a big factor, especially for contractors serving mid-level markets. Jeff Edenfield, project manager for Audio Professional Services located in Metairie, La., admits that customers love touch screens, but cost is still a factor for both the installer and the homeowner. He says that touch screens usually require more programming and installation time than other interfaces his company installs, and he has not seen enough demand in Audio Professional’s market to make it profitable.

However, Edenfield acknowledges that this may be changing. He notes that IP enables remote and wireless connections with the network and Internet. [Those systems] are more expandable and tend to use touch screen interfaces because of their greater capabilities. “IP would be the reason we would move more toward touch screens,” Edenfield explains.

Like many installers, Edenfield thinks that before this transition happens, his company would have to invest significant time and money to train his employees. “That requires a whole new body of knowledge. We’ll have to stay on top of that.”

Because of the challenges in programming and costs of products and employee training, Edenfield says his company will take a gradual approach in moving toward touch screen technology. He says, “As cool as it is, there has to be a reason. We’re just not there yet.”

Edenfield is not alone in recognizing the challenges for residential integrators faces in adopting touch screens and related network technologies. Manufacturers are aware of these challenges in price and implementing technology, and they are starting to develop products to help overcome them. Spinner says that can be a problem even in the high-end markets, “Customers don’t see the coding, so it’s hard to justify those costs.” Savant offers the RacePoint Blueprint to help installers reduce programming time and cost.

Some companies are tackling the problem from a different angle. Since many customers already own a sophisticated, portable touch screen, that is, an iPhone, manufacturers are developing apps for it. Cost-conscious home-owners can reduce their system cost by purchasing an iPhone and the app, rather than a separate, dedicated touch panel. Eric Smith, of Control 4, describes his company’s Mobile Navigator software as a bridge between mobile and touch. While homeowners love to use their iPhones because of the portability and remote access, Smith says most customers still want a dedicated touch screen. “Consumers like to have a built-in touch screen and a portable touch screen. If we don’t embrace the other [mobile] market, we’ll be in trouble.”

Remote access is one of the biggest reasons people like using iPhones. Like Control4, other companies are offering apps for this and the accessibility is growing. Depending on availability of 3G coverage, Savant’s ROSIE on the Road software allows for control of home automation from almost anywhere. Honeywell offers Total Connect, a suite of Web and mobile applications that let people control their security systems and receive instant notification via a PC, laptop, cell phone, BlackBerry, iPhone or other compatible wireless device, about important events in and around their home from any location. These could be security events, environmental conditions such as temperature, and more.

These types of applications have wide appeal, from homeowners who want to control the security and automation functions of their second homes to working parents who want to make a quick check of the security video to see if their children arrived home after school.

Homeowners want to communicate with their systems from afar, but they also want to be able to communicate from home. Pinnacle Security of Provo, Utah, has partnered with GE Security to develop a new touch screen interface for the GE Security Simon system. In addition to the control features of the panel, the touch screen allows the homeowner to contact Pinnacle with the touch of an icon. In doing so, information about the homeowner’s account, system history, and other information is immediately sent to a customer service representative, who reviews the information and calls the homeowner. This seemingly minor feature enhances customer service by saving the customers time spent looking for account numbers and waiting in phone queues.

For Pinnacle, the appeal is the reduction in staffing costs. Kelly Walker, president of Pinnacle Security, says that instead of having to staff for peak-call volume, this system streamlines communication and allows the company to staff for average volume, while still serving customers in a timely manner. The panel also offers the company the ability to communicate with consumers via messages to the consumer’s touch screen.


Customers who opt for cutting upfront system costs by using an iPhone in lieu of a dedicated touch screen for control may decide to add a larger touch panel later. CEDIA’s Dave Pedigo says that the flexibility of touch screens and the supporting technology is not only attractive to homeowners, but also presents an opportunity for contractors.

“No matter what the devices are, you should be able to insert apps or widgets for things you never thought of,” he says. The flexibility of touch screens, whether wall-mounted, portable, or handheld, makes upgrades and addons much easier. He sees opportunity for residential installers to develop potential sources of recurring revenues though service contracts, program updates, and addition and deletion of apps.

In addition to the many functional aspects of touch screens, the inherent appeal of a touch screen is its looks. Colorful graphics and sleek housings are fairly standard. Some manufacturers, especially in the high-end markets, offer custom finishes, so homeowners can blend technology with décor.

“Designers are funny. They don’t like touch panels and hardwired devices taking away from the look,” Spinner describes. “We’re allowing the beauty and aesthetics to merge with the technology.”

Touch screen technology is becoming so versatile that it can be installed virtually anywhere in a home. At its new design center in New York City, Savant recently unveiled a touch screen panel embedded in a coffee table designed by Thom Filicia. Spinner says he knows of one client who had a breakfast table constructed to house a large touch panel display.

Dual-purpose screens, which minimize the number of electronic devices in the home, are also an attractive option. These video panels can be integrated with entertainment and security systems. Advanced technology may allow homeowners to pull up a touch screen interface that overlays live television.

Savant’s TrueImage Control takes form and function to the next level. This capacitive touch interface allows homeowners to control systems by touching items in an actual image of the room (rather than an icon). During system installation, a professional photographer takes photographs of the room from multiple angles. The images are loaded into the program. The interface allows the user to view the entire room. Spinner says the device is “swipecentric,” allowing the homeowner to pan the image 360 degrees with a swipe of the hand. To turn on a light, the homeowner simply touches the image of the light on the panel.

“We want to make controlling devices as easy as possible. What’s easier than touching an image? It’s very intuitive,” Spinner says.

The Future of Touch

Though touch screen use and application has exploded in recent years, it is clear that today’s offerings have just barely scratched the surface of what is possible. Historically, most touch screens have been resistive technology, multi-layer plastic panel screens that allow for single contact. Smith anticipates that touch screens using capacitive technology (the sleeker-looking glass panel, as in the iPhone) will become more prevalent. Their multi-touch capabilities allow for more gesturing actions, such as pinching and swiping.

Because of the rapid change and growth in the industry, Dave Pedigo, senior director of technology at CEDIA, thinks it’s hard to predict where the technology will be even 12 to 24 months from now. He notes that research is currently underway and in the not-too-distant future, touch screens will be available in flexible shapes. He also expects to see thinner, faster, more capable, and more energy-efficient panels.

Touch screens of different sizes and increased capabilities are already hitting the market. With the January release of the iPad, manufacturers are already scrambling to find ways to exploit the newest Apple offering. Will the iPad take a bite out of the industry? Thomas Pickral, Jr., director of business development for Home Automation Inc., New Orleans, sees tablets driving the next wave of technology in home automation. “Those devices will standardize touch-screen interfaces for the house, as has happened with the handheld.”

Regardless of the applications, nearly everyone in the industry agrees that touch screens, along with supporting wireless and network technologies, will be ubiquitous. Falling prices, simplicity, flexibility, and portability are just a few reasons that make touch screens so adaptable to modern life-styles. Touch-screen interfaces, whether in the home or in hand, will allow people a greater degree of control and connectivity than ever before.

Residential installers who are ready to explore the technology will see many opportunities for growth. Pedigo says now is the time for companies to evaluate their business model and offerings and take steps to prepare for the inevitable changes in the industry. “If you’re not a networking specialist, you have to learn it,” he says. “Everything is becoming network at this point.”

As networking becomes universal, so will the touch-screen interfaces used to access those networks. Most experts agree that touch-screen technology will change how we interact with our world. Pedigo says, “It’s going to be deeply ingrained in our culture that we need — not just want — to have it. And it will control everything.”

Touch Screens on Display

The features and applications for touch-screen technology seem limitless. The investment costs of keeping up with the latest technology can be daunting, especially in this economy. While it is not economically feasible to have a demo model of every new product, integrators and their clients do have options to find out more about some of the new products and features available.

Savant NYC Experience Center

Savant’s NYC Experience Center, located in the affluent SoHo district of New York City, provides visitors the opportunity to explore cutting-edge technology in home automation and entertainment. The 8,000-square-foot center includes both residential and commercial showcases, featuring not only Savant products, but innovative offerings from many other companies serving the high-end market.

Created in conjunction with a world-class team of designers, including Thom Filicia of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the residential showcase includes a fully automated master bedroom, bathroom and media room, as well as an 800-square-foot, dedicated home theater. Dealers and clients are welcome. Appointments are required.

For information contact Beth Ann Schroeder, NYC Experience Center manager, at 508-683-2181 or bethann.schroeder@savantav.com or visit the company’s Web site at www.savantav.com.

AVAD Showroom

Integrations solutions distributor AVAD has 28 locations across North America. Each location features interactive showroom space (including, but not limited to distributed audio, touch-screen integration, flat panel/video technologies, components, lighting control, etc.) in a stud wall environment. Many locations also feature additional rooms that showcase projectors, speakers and more.

AVAD branches and showrooms are open to AVAD dealers and clients from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Appointments are recommended to ensure that training sessions or other scheduled events do not conflict with the visit.

For information about showroom locations and local contact information, visit the AVAD Web site at www.us.avad.com.