Interview: Crestron makes a push into smart home automation
Sitting on the back porch of a giant luxury home in Melbourne's inner East, Crestron's Director of Residential Systems speaks about the switch over from commercial buildings to family homes, the state of the art in home automation, and the reasons why he'll always recommend wired systems over wireless.
As smart homes go, you'd have to rank this Hampton mansion as a great showpiece. It's a stunner, a three-story beauty with an indoor fernery, golf driving practice room, a big ol' swimming pool with its own BBQ/poolhouse and a big, happy Golden Retriever.
It's also wired to the teeth with automation gear. Nearly everything electrical in the house is controllable through smartphones, voice commands and sleek, wall-mounted touch panels.
Big-screen televisions drop down from ceilings and swing out from walls. The tasteful lighting can be switched from "scene" to "scene" much like stage lighting, setting a mood for movie time, or an intimate dinner party, or whatever else is programmed in, in a snap. And it's all controlled by a giant basement brain center that's done up like an art installation.
This house is, of course, an extreme example of what can be done with automation when money is no object. But Crestron's Director of Residential for Australia, Trevor Rooney, says the additional cost to wire a new build home up for automation is so marginal that it should be a no-brainer.
Rooney spoke to us about the company, the state of automation in 2018, integrating with voice control systems like Google Home and Alexa, and why he'll always recommend a wired installation over a wireless system. What follows is an edited transcript.
Trevor Rooney on Crestron as a company:
Crestron, in the commercial world, has had a glorious reputation over the years. If we think of any major capital city [in Australia], you can look around and I can pick the buildings on the skyline that are full Crestron installations, whether it be a bank, or a casino, or the Sydney Convention Centre.
We're an automation company. At a very high level, you could say we're the backbone that allows you to aggregate all the smarts in your home into one easy-to-use functional application. And that application comes in various forms, whether it's cellphones, or panels, or whatever it might be.
The company's been around for 50 years, which in the world of automation is probably the longest time. We've seen a lot of changes over the years – 50 years ago, you're talking about automated garage doors, things like that.
George Felstein was our founder, and he built the company up to where it stands now, as a global, billion-dollar company. We're represented all over the world, in Europe, in the US, through India, through China, and our head office for Asia Pacific is in Sydney. We're a big company.
On automation in 2018:
When we say control, and talk about automation, many years ago automation was moving audio and video around the home. That was the main focus. How do I get my Galaxy satellite TV, if you remember that, into the bedroom or wherever that might be.
Now, of course, that's changing quite a lot. As the intelligence, shall we say, of the end user when it comes to automation has changed, the demands have changed. I often ask "who's doing automation in the world right now?" The simple answer is everyone. Anyone with a cellphone is using apps, and seeing tangible results from that action.
So, right now, the biggest conversation starter around automation is lighting. People want to have smart lighting in their home. The days of having an on/off light switch are virtually gone. If that happens in a new build, it's usually through lack of education, either the electrician or the homeowner. Homeowner doesn't really know what they don't know, so it's very important that an integrator knows what level they're at.
The guys we're here with today, a company called ITA, spent many months with the homeowner prior to doing anything, just sitting and chatting with them, figuring out what were the things they would use day to day.
For me, when I sit with a new end user, they're like "where do we start?" And it's easy! You start with a necessity list, like lighting and security and whatever else. Then you have a wish list, say, maybe you'd love voice control. And then we have the list that we actually create for day one when you move in.
Crestron's goal is to create a complete ecosystem. Not only do we make the control items that run everything, we also are very active making lights, we make all the DIN rails and panels that sit behind and beside and power downlights. We also make motorized blinds, and passive units as well.
People ask "why do we make blinds? Why do we make lights?" It's simply because over the years, we've got tired of taking calls saying "our Crestron doesn't work" – when in reality, it's a third party lighting or blind system. So, benefits of being a private company, we can say "let's take a group of people from Crestron in New Jersey, and let's task them to design lighting."
It's easy to sit in an environment, a beautiful house like this and think "I'd love to live here, but the chances are I won't ever have something this big." The beauty of what we do is that it's affordable to everyone, and it's a very scalable solution. So whether we start off with one room, three or 10 rooms, it doesn't matter, we can build on it.
I like to think of Crestron as a very clever software company, that can make bulletproof hardware. So as we evolve as a company in terms of creating new features and whatnot, those can be rolled out in a software update to every installation that's out there.
On third party integrations with Sonos, Apple, Google Amazon and others:
What we've done over the years is realize what we're good at, and what we don't need to be good at. So when we talk about music systems – I mentioned Sonos a moment ago – we're the only guys out there that have native integration with Sonos through our touch panels.
That's not reliant on some third party driver that somebody else has written – that's a driver that's been written between Crestron and Sonos. And we also partner with Apple, Google, Amazon. There's a lot of people out there that either we've approached, or humbly they've approached us and said, hey, we want our system to work with yours. So we're in a pretty good position.
And that goes through everything. We talked about lighting being the conversation starter. I guess the next thing we talk about with automation is security – very important for a lot of people now. That tends to lead to intercoms. And then we have all the other bits and pieces, whether it's underfloor heating, standard HVAC, exterior lighting, fans, whatever else. If it has an on/off switch, we want to control it.
All of those things need to have drivers, and we're constantly writing those drivers ourselves to provide that seamless integration, so there's no third party. If you look at Alexa right now – they're probably at the forefront – it's funny, a lot of people have bought Alexa assuming it does a bunch of home automation stuff. And it doesn't. And people realize that you can only ask it the time and the weather so many times.
There's a lot of people over the years that have been burned by automation because they've gone down the cheapest route. And they haven't had the same sort of experience that they should have. The great news is that Crestron's now at the point where we've become incredibly affordable, we're not more expensive than a lot of the products out there. Yes, we can keep going and going and the sky's the limit, but for a simple three or four bedroom home, putting lighting and audio and video and HVAC control, it's not that expensive.
Customizing a home:
The other thing we've managed is to come up with a system that's quite easy to program. Traditionally, Crestron would be a thing where you'd sit down and write lines of code for weeks to get a home up and running. We still do that – and this house is a hybrid, a mix of code, and pre-programmed stuff that comes from Crestron.
Customizing a home requires pre-programming, from a guy who's spent his time learning about what we do, and then some of the non-customized options, maybe a backdrop for a GUI on a panel, that's already pre-programmed for you.
At this level, the homeowner has the choice to go one way or the other. At the more entry level, people might simply say, "I'm happy with how that looks. I'm spending three or four grand, and that's going to get me into a really great processor that can run my home, potentially a touch screen remote control, as well as cellphones and tablets, and the ability to control my lighting and A/V system within one or two rooms." You can then scale as you move forward depending on what you want to do.
You think about things like the internet fridge that came out a few years ago. For us, at Crestron, I'm not interested in helping design a house that has features that only get turned on when they have a dinner party. Everything needs to be functional.
On wireless vs wired smart home tech:
You look at things like Nest, and other things out there – there's some security systems that can do a few bits and pieces through Google Home or whatever. It's like saying "I wanted to get into smart lighting, so I went to Bunnings, and I bought a LifeX globe that plugs in, and I can control it on my cell phone." We're not saying we're inventing automation. We're aggregating everything into one area. What we don't want is wall acne – four or five panels on a wall controlling lights, HVAC, whatever, and that's what you see in older developments.
Where does wireless fit in? Well, wireless is amazing if you forgot to wire. That's how I feel. If it's a retrofit, then absolutely we've got wireless products, and they're amazing. But if you're building a home, the cost of cabling in the scheme of things is nothing. You're future-proofing everything, and you can always add in wireless products later if you want to.
But if you pick up your cellphone, and walk around your house, and you go to Google, and you google Sonos or Crestron, maybe there's a spot in your house where that takes two seconds. Maybe there's another spot where it takes five, or 10. That's OK when you're searching the web, because we're conditioned to accept that sometimes it's fast and sometimes it's slow.
If I turn on my light, I want it on. I don't to wait 10 seconds because there's lots going on in the Wi-Fi network. This is part of the initial conversation we have with new customers. We tell them wireless exists, but here's why we're going to wire.