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Control systems: third-party solutions

Most devices are now supplied with a smart device control app. But how can users manage several different ones in a single system? We explore the market for standalone, third-party solutions.

Most devices are now supplied with a smart device control app. But how can users manage several different ones in a single system? Steve Montgomery explores the market for standalone, third-party solutions.

The proliferation of AV technology in commercial and domestic environments brought with it an increase in the number of individual remote control handsets needed to access and control devices – leading to coffee-table and desktop clutter and user confusion. Independent companies such as AMX, Crestron and Control4 evolved by developing third-party control systems that were able to integrate devices from different vendors and provide a single, coherent and largely intuitive user interface for each complete system. These companies grew and were successful in providing a simple solution to a widespread problem.

That situation is now at risk of repeating itself as individual manufacturers now offer smart device control mechanisms that are based on apps to operate their products. Instead of a multitude of remote controls, users now have to operate a multitude of apps on their smartphones or tablets. “With more and more app-based products on the market, the problem of too many remotes in a room has simply moved,” says Michael Jarl Christensen, co-owner and CSO at Neets. “Instead of having five remotes for controlling the AV system, users now have five different apps, each with multiple control layers, to figure out how to use and when. It’s still not intuitive for the user. Individual apps may be, but that certainly isn’t the case when it’s the full room you need to control.”

As in the past however, new third-party vendors are beginning to emerge to solve this problem. Existing control system manufacturers, too, are shifting their emphasis. Control surfaces are now available that enable system integrators to replace several individual apps with one customised user interface; in much the same way that touch controllers did in the past. “As manufacturers attempt to create ‘Apple-like’ environments for their own system, where they ‘own’ the environment, they lack the functions that user actually need over a complete system. A third-party control system, like Neets, is an ideal solution to provide the prime user interface that incorporates all device functionality in one place.”

Another example is iViewer from CommandFusion. “iViewer works with any Ethernet-controllable hardware on the market. It directly controls network addressable AV gear, and can integrate with any control system hardware available today to provide a fully customisable control interface,” explains Aaron Green of CommandFusion. “It supports all Ethernet communication methods including TCP client/server, UDP unicast/multicast/broadcast, HTTP/HTTPS to provide simultaneous control of multiple devices directly from a smart device, without requiring any other hardware. With additional gateway devices, other transports such as IR, RS232 and contact closure can be added to the single user interface. The result is a much cleaner and simpler interface for the user. The next phase of development of this tool will be an online GUI creation tool that allows designers to produce interface apps without the need for graphics or programming knowledge and allows remote access and modification. This will extend the potential for complex control systems to be constructed by the design community even further.”

This type of solution is attractive to most market sectors served by the AV community, from homes through corporate boardrooms to houses of worship and large conference centres. “The education and corporate markets benefit due to the number of devices that require control, but every install market, from performance venues through conference centres to cruise ships, will have multiple applications. In my opinion, though, the domestic market will see the biggest growth potential,” believes Ian Thomas, install specialist at Allen & Heath. “Driven by the Internet of Things, smart buildings will become full of connected devices all requiring some form of control and interaction. Once the control system hardware reduces to a price point which the average consumer can afford, the mass market will be open for these products and the floodgates will open. Initial equipment uptake will generally be for devices that require simple switching and transport or those devices which the end user interacts with. However, by utilising various user permissions, system parameters such as room equalisation, lighting presets or projector calibration can be accessed by the installer/integrator.”

Crestron control systems
Neets third-party control systems
Allen & Heath consoles
CommandFusion control systems for home automation