TechnologyTell

AppleTell feature: A tour of the Savant Systems NYC Residential Experience Center

Sections: iDevice Apps, iPad, iPad mini, iPhone, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, iPod touch, Mac Software, Miscellaneous / Other

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In the beginning, there were very expensive and highly brittle home automation systems that relied on programmers to customize code  for specific components (Millenials who grew up watching MTV’s Cribs no doubt ogled such systems on a regular basis). If you wanted to add a new device to your home theater setup or change your lighting arrangement, you had to bring the programmer back to write more code for the new device, and hope it didn’t break any of your existing functions.

Savant’s goal is simple; get rid of the custom programming and provide the most user-friendly and flexible remote control/home automation solution. And best of all? It’s Mac-based.

Take Command

Arriving at Savant’s NYC “experience center,” I was struck first and foremost by its hip location. In the midst of bustling Soho, the historic Little Singer Building is a standout even by Manhattan standards, with an intricate wrought iron exterior painted deep green. Inside, I discovered a connected world that turns your iPhone or iPad into a veritable total-life remote control, whether you need to automate a corporate boardroom or want to control the ambience in your bedroom. The real power of Savant’s products lies in their simplicity; they’re largely Mac-based and function with the same ease of use, allowing your remote control to simplify rather than mystify.

Savant Systems

Savant sells the same basic hardware whether you’re installing in a home or commercial environment, but the user interface allows for near infinite customization. At the heart of a Savant SmartSystem you’ll find custom-developed Linux-based video/audio distribution and power management hardware, as well as one or more Mac Minis running Savant’s control software (multiple Minis provide redundancy). Unlike competitor’s systems, Savant utilizes a highly advanced design environment called BluePrint, which allows for the easy integration/customization of remote component actions without requiring custom code. The system dynamically generates remote control code based on device profiles, so integrating new components is a simple design task rather than a custom programming job (and costs significantly less).

A Touchy Subject

Impressive though the hardware is, it’s not really the centerpiece of the Savant experience. At the experience center, I found a posh, well-appointed Manhattan loft that could be completely controlled from any of the iPads or iPhones lying around, as well as iPads that were installed in the wall in place of traditional lightswitches. Savant used to make their own touchscreen remotes (like other automation companies), but jettisoned those products and went exclusively app after the release of the iPad. My tour guide was in complete control of every gadget in the loft from his iPad, including televisions, speakers, A/C, curtains, and lights, which were color-changing LEDs whose hue could be remotely controlled.

Want to select a Pandora station and pipe it throughout your house? A few quick taps of the Savant remote app on your Mac or iDevice and you can set the mood with your favorite music, and choose lighting to complement the experience. Savant incorporates a feature they call TrueImage, which utilizes photos of your space that let you remote control objects by simply tapping on them. During my tour, my guide tapped lamps and televisions (on the iPad, not in real life), and they turned on, off, and cycled colors.

TrueImage

Most controls feature sliders, directional arrows, and labelled buttons for control, so dimming lights was a simple matter of moving a slider. Best of all, the TrueImage display updates to show you the room as it is; using some neat graphical tricks, the remote can display the effect of the dimmed lamps, so you get a fairly accurate representation of what the room looks like. This is great if you’re controlling gadgets from another room, another state, or even around the world. (The app works via WiFi/cellular, so no need to be at home. Use it to scare/enrage pets, spouses, or houseguests!)

At One with Apple

One of Savant’s goals—and one which they have more than achieved—is to create an Apple-like simplicity for home automation and control. The remote app features a simple two-level menu structure; dependent upon your device’s orientation, Category buttons are at the top/left of the screen and Component buttons are located at the bottom/right. Categories include Watch, Listen, and Environment, which contain Components such as Cable TV, iPod, and Climate, respectively. The Categories are logical groupings of gadgets and appliances, while Components contain the individual gadgets and functions available on each.

Throughout my tour, Savant’s intense focus on user interface design was imminently apparent. You can use the remote app for remote control, obviously, but what if your iPad’s battery is dead? The Savant system puts an interface wherever you need it, so if you pick up your television’s remote it overlays the Savant menu and relevant controls onto your TV screen using slick OS X rendering. If you’re watching a movie and there’s a knock at the door, either your iPad or the TV remote can be used to take a peek at a security camera. Left your iPhone in another room? Grab any remote to adjust the volume of the music, and your Savant system is smart enough to transfer that command to other rooms playing music. Best of all, the system uses a familiar cover-flow style interface; Mac or iOS users will be instant experts.

Perhaps the most useful parallel between Savant and Apple is Savant’s commitment to delivering new features for existing customers. Just as Apple continuously updates iOS with new and (generally) useful features, Savant’s hardware choices and extensible design allow the company to deliver software updates that add new features. The Mac Minis and iDevices used to control a Savant system are not overtaxed, so there are few hardware constraints to adding new software features. Unlike completely custom-built solutions that are programmed for specific devices/components, the Savant model is designed to allow for expansion, leading to greater long term value.

Infinite Possibilities

I was at the experience center for one hour, and it felt like I only saw half of what you could do with one of Savant’s SmartSystems powering your home, office, or retail location. Presenting an intuitive and user-definable experience is the overall goal of a Savant system, so there is flexibility to do just about anything you could conceivably want to do via remote control. In a work environment, Savant can provide:

  • Centralized control: Control lights, climate, and media, including sending multiple content streams to televisions/monitors in your building. Bars with multiple TVs can choose which games are on what TVs without the need to fumble for remotes, and the ability to overlay scrolling text could provide patrons with info like current specials, weather, or stats for other games/sports (via RSS feed integration).
  • Alerts: Set alerts for system events, including text messages or push notifications on iDevices with the Savant app installed. Get notified if someone trips your security system, or be notified if someone changes a channel on a television in a public location.
  • Lights and Presentations: Corporate meeting rooms often have complex and dedicated subsystems for controlling lighting and video presentations. A single Savant system can manage both, with a consistent and vastly superior interface.
  • Custom apps: My tour included a mock hotel room with an iPad embedded in the wall. From that one screen it was possible to control all the room functions (curtains, electrochromic window glass, lights, music, etc.), and a customized hotel app also let me order room service, order a taxi, or process my checkout all from the comfort of my own room.
  • Pinch-to-tile video: Easily the single coolest thing I saw during my whole visit, the Savant app shows you a rectangle that represents your television’s screen. To tile multiple video sources onto a single screen, simply perform a pinch gesture and you get a tiled video arrangement. Drag video sources onto the tile where you want it to play, and you’ve got a 4-, 5-, 6-, or 9-up tile display.

SmartView_6Tile

  • Custom VOIP solution: If you add a Call Server to your Savant system, you can support internal Voice over IP intercom and external calling functionality from iOS devices or Savant’s own wired or wireless handsets.

At home, a Savant system not only lets you take control of your life, but can also provide:

  • Alerts: Your Savant app can push alerts to you based on custom triggers for virtually anything, so if the temperature at your house trips a threshold, you’ll know to call a neighbor/friend before your pipes freeze.
  • Guest access: Configure your system to allow guests any level of access to your home’s systems, from total control to just the ability to stream their iPod music in their room.
  • Custom Buttons: Easily create custom buttons to give you quick access to your favorite cable TV stations or playlists. The process is as simple as tapping and dragging, no programming required!
  • Bundle actions: You can easily create a “Welcome Home” button that will raise the lights, activate your heat or A/C, and turn on your favorite media channel to greet you when you walk in the door. Rather than fiddle with all those separate subsystems, the Savant remote lets you easily define bundles of settings to automate certain actions. Setting up one of these bundles takes just about the same amount of time as running around flipping switches, so you get an almost instant time savings!
  • Custom power management: With a SmartEnergy Monitor and SmartEnergy Sensors deployed around your house, the Savant app can show current and historical power usage by device, room, or category. During my demo I watched as an oven’s power draw went from virtually nothing to several kilowatts as it was turned on, and I was able to see a graph of oven power usage for the previous week (it usually spiked right before dinner time, unsurprisingly).

HVAC_UI_MainImage

  • Intercom: Utilizing Savant’s VOIP technology, you can add a room-to-room intercom or integrate an entryway intercom to identify visitors.

Find Out More

Because they offer such a vast array of choices and some custom integration work is required, Savant sells their products through a network of dealers, who are carefully chosen to offer excellent service (not unlike the employees at the Apple Store). As for pricing, the exact configuration and number of devices you choose to integrate will all affect the cost, but this is obviously a serious investment of at least a couple thousand dollars. Unlike their competitors, however, Savant offers a major advantage; their system is extensible, so integrating components in the future isn’t a major headache involving custom programming, and you’ll continue to receive updates and new features even after your system is built. The extensive list of user-definable options—like the ability to add new buttons on the fly—means your system will adapt to your changing needs, providing truly useful home control rather than just remote control gimmicks.

To learn more about Savant, check out their webpage. You can learn more about their use of Apple’s Mac OS X and iOS, or find a dealer. Once you submit a dealer request, a Savant rep will contact you to determine your requirements and help match you with a dealer who has the qualifications to meet your needs. If you’re seriously considering a Savant system, be sure to request a tour at one of their Experience Centers. It’s an experience not soon forgotten, and a great way to learn about all the possibilities their remote control technology can offer.

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