A Big Home Automation Experience in a Tiny Package: Q&A with Control4’s Martin Plaehn and Kordon Vaughn

Sections: Features, HVAC, Lighting control, Power management, Remote control, Security, Smart Home

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Control4’s new HC-250 Controller hits the market today at traditional Control4 dealers, as well as Best Buy’s Magnolia Home Theater locations, and although it seems like such a tiny addition to the company’s line of home automation controllers (it’s actually small enough to Velcro to the back of a television) this little guy has the potential to be a big game changer.

It takes the full power and experience of a larger whole-home Control4 system and makes that full experience available for single-room systems, opening up the Control4 lifestyle to a new demographic of users and serving as a gateway to an expandable, powerful whole-home system that can easily grow with your needs and desires.

We sat down with Control4 President & Chief Executive Officer Martin Plaehn and Director of Hardware Product Management Kordon Vaughn to talk about the $599 HC-250, where it fits into the remote control market, and how it compares with the sorts of home automation/security services being offered by the likes of Comcast’s Xfinity service.

HomeTechTell: Let’s talk a bit about the impetus behind the design of the HC-250, its intended place in the home automation market, and why Control4 is making such a big fuss over such a small controller.

Martin Plaehn: Well, firstly, we think that home automation can provide huge lifestyle and practicality benefits to consumers, but the trick is getting them started, getting them to have their first experience with real home automation. And one of the most logical starting places is single-room home theater/media systems. The complexity of getting all the components of a home theater to work together really well and absolutely predictably every time is what drives many people to search for a better control solution.

We think that if we nail that experience with a very high-function, high-value, very reliable product, we can get lots of home owners introduced to what home automation really means. And with the HC-250, we’ve developed a controller acts as that gateway, yet has enough power and inputs and outputs to support the next wave of automation for that new customer: connecting to lights, connecting to motion sensors, connecting to security systems…

Kordon Vaughn: We’ve found that, especially in tough economic times, more and more of our dealers are installing small systems, but what’s interesting is that, many times, what starts out as a small single-room project morphs over the course of months or years into an elaborate whole-home system. So what we’ve done with the HC-250 is develop a product that allows our dealers to go and target that single-room solution, and have it grow from there depending on what the customer wants to do with it.

HTT: We’re seeing more and more companies do away with their dedicated touch panels lately and move toward relying exclusively on iOS and Android devices, whereas Control4 is introducing new touch panels this year. Do you foresee new Control4 customers who are enticed by the HC-250 using their own tablets and phones as the main control device, or do you think they’ll opt for dedicated Control4 touch panels?

Kordon Vaughn: The great thing about the HC-250 is that it essentially comes with something that isn’t exactly a touch screen, but is very much like the experience you get from a touch screen, built in. The onscreen navigator built into the HC-250 essentially turns the biggest display in your house into the interface for the system.

We expect people to use their iPhones and iPads with the HC-250. Absolutely. We’re embracing that. But there’s always a real benefit to having a dedicated device that is purpose built for a system and lives in a room with the system. It’s not a device that you’re going to carry with you to Starbucks or even throughout the house; it’s a device you’ll use for controlling that system in that room. What we’re hearing from our dealers is that many of them end up building mixed systems, because customers want the flexibility of using their tablet or phone, but they love the instant access that a dedicated remote gives them. So we very much recognize the value of continuing to develop and offer dedicated touch screen controllers, but we also recognize that customers want options.

HTT: We’ve talked a lot about the HC-250 as a gateway to a larger home automation system, but what can it do on its own? By that I mean, just one HC-250 in one room in the home, before you add other system controllers, lighting controllers, shade controllers, etc.

Kordon Vaughn: As I mentioned, it provides our onscreen interface, right out of the box. And from there, you can control your entire music library on the network. It can also control over 6500 third-party devices in the home, which can be IR, serial, or IP devices. Unlike a traditional universal remote control that’s made to control IR devices, ours is an IP device, so we can control IP televisions, IP receivers… all of which are becoming more and more common in the marketplace.

It has Zigbee built in to communicate with the remote control, and then you can add optional accessories to it. It has an integrated contact and relay, also, so you can control blinds, or motion sensors, or motorized screens—

HTT: Directly from the HC-250?

Kordon Vaughn: —Directly from the HC-250, without any kind of add-on processors. And let’s say you have a security system installed in your house—that’s a separate device, of course, but we have a serial connection in the HC-250 that can interface with a security system and control it directly.

It’s also not that big a step to move into a whole-home distributed audio system. Just add a wireless amplifier—which we call a Speaker Point—to any room, and now the music from the HC-250 becomes available in any other location in the house. That’s just by adding one of our amps. No other distributed audio processor or controller.

If you want the ability to control your HVAC system from the couch, you can just add one of our Zigbee thermostats. And then using our MyHome app, you can even adjust the thermostat when you’re out of the country. And lighting modules are the same way. You can add lighting modules that are Zigbee connected, very easily.

Martin Plaehn: And all of these things Kordon is talking about would be additional peripherals, but not a new controller. The same HC-250 that was installed to control the home theater could then be extended with contact and relays for shades, garage doors, door locks, gates—but the controller itself doesn’t change.

HTT: I took a good bit of ribbing at the CEDIA Expo last year for sort of breezing past all of the lighting and entertainment options that Control4 offers and throwing an absolutely nerd fit over the WeatherHawk Weather Station and app you guys were showing. Would something like that work with the HC-250, or would I need one of your larger home controllers?

Kordon Vaughn: Absolutely, it works with the HC-250. It’s just a driver and an app. You install the driver, load the app, install the weather station, and there you go. Speaking of weather, something I didn’t mention is that the HC-250 is aware of where your house is. At the time of installation, the dealer plugs in your ZIP code, and from that we pull in the weather information. So we display, on the main screen, your local temperature and other basic information, and then you can expand on that with things like the WeatherHawk.

This isn’t a scaled-down Control4 experience. It’s the full Control4 experience for scaled-down environments. It runs the full software suite from Control4, which raises the question: why would you buy a larger controller, then? Well, let’s say you love the HC-250 experience and start to really beef up the system, adding hundreds of Zigbee devices—then you would want a more powerful processor, like the HC-800. It’s really all about processing power. In terms of what you’ll see on the screen, you won’t notice a difference.

Granted, if you try to control an entire house on one HC-250, you might start to notice a difference in speed—which is why you would want that HC-800 on that case—but the functions, the features, the experience are the same.

Martin Plaehn: The HC-250 really has two primary roles: that of the single room controller, the whole-experience controller for a home theater or media room, with moderate expandability for lighting and multiroom audio and a few contacts; and then also as a part of a distributed control system, where the HC-250 is placed behind every television in a fully automated home. We’ve designed it so that you can power it over Ethernet, and we’ve also designed it so that, if there isn’t CAT5 behind every TV, it can connect to the network over Wi-Fi and have a direct power source. So even if you decide to vastly expand a system that started with the HC-250, it isn’t obsolete once you start adding more powerful controllers. It just takes on a different role.

HTT: I notice in the announcement of the HC-250 that you’re emphasizing its availability at Best Buy. Does the relationship with Best Buy lead to thoughts of developing a Control4 product that the average consumer could program?

Martin Plaehn: No, all of our products are designed to be professionally installed. We do that to ensure that the home or the room is correctly configured, so that it works every single time with every single device in the system. With Magnolia, it is a professional installation. The Geek Squad goes through the exact same training and testing that any custom integrator would go through. Whether you’re controlling two devices or twenty, we need to make sure that customer satisfaction is first, and that’s why we want a professional installer providing that service.

HTT: How does that experience compare with, say, Comcast’s Xfinity service—home automation and security service in subscription form from a cable provider?

Kordon Vaughn: Well, we don’t want to speak ill of anyone who’s working to raise awareness about home automation. But they typically offer very basic systems. What they’re trying to do is figure out a way to keep their hooks in the customer and prevent them from cutting the cord. That said, we think it actually ends up making people much more aware of home automation, and as consumers start to see the kind of things they can’t do with such systems, I think it ultimately works to our benefit.

Martin Plaehn: The HC-250 also comes with a vast library of drivers to support more than 6500 third-party devices—televisions, receivers, media devices—and we’re in the business of making those devices work, every time, with one button press. Automation is really about personalization. It’s not just simple control; it has to work the way you want it to work, and we think what the cable providers are providing in terms of home automation is just an extra option to increase their RPU [revenue per user]. But I don’t think they’ll ever be the true masters of whole home or even great single-room home theater automation.

There’s a lot of complexity that needs to be overcome and mastered. Scratching the service is pretty easy, actually. Making it work in a truly deep and accessible way, so that new devices can be easily and flexibly integrated into the system as a whole—that’s our ultimate goal, and it’s why we’re the leaders in this field.

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