Making the case for physical buttons for the smarter home

Making the case for physical buttons for the smarter home

Related video: Philips Hue physical button controllers.

In the “good old days” of home automation, buttons were everywhere. You couldn’t escape them. This was especially true before the early touchscreen controllers hit the market from companies like AMX and Crestron. Today, smartphone apps and voice control have seemingly taken over control of everything in the modern smarter home, but is it really a better experience?

As the smartphone revolution took hold in the early part of this decade, it was naturally only a matter of time before apps to control connected devices started to appear. With the early popularity of products like Nest and Philips Hue, smartphone control of the “smart home” was here to stay. And, to be fair, it makes sense, right? Having the ability to control potentially everything in your humble abode via a device that you generally always carry with you had been the dream of geeks for many years, but would that idea fly with the general public, too?

Main display from the SmartThings app

Main display from the SmartThings app

The idea of controlling one’s connected devices via apps is heavily marketed as “easy”, “convenient”, “time-saving”, sometimes even as “it will improve your life”. But in real-world use, not so much. One primary issue is, well, getting to the right app or widget to adjust what you want to control. Maybe you have your phone or tablet perfectly configured and ready to go at a moment’s notice, that’s great. But most users probably won’t have that capability or skill. Another issue is diverting your attention to your smartphone screen to make sure you press the right control or activate the correct scene or routine. Finally, there’s “app fatigue”, which many people are experiencing these days, even beyond the world of home automation. The need to open several apps to control your home’s devices, lighting, climate and other attributes is just downright silly.

Now, I must confess, I have somewhat of a “home grown” home automation system that controls the various devices in the Smarter Home Life “home studios” where I live. My previous career mainly focused on web development, while I’ve also done a ton of creative work (hence the higher production quality of SHL), and I had my X10 home automation devices linked to the web in 1998—since I wrote my own custom interface. Every time that I get a new connected device that I want to “blend” into my home automation system, I start by using its app for a while—and hoping that they have some integration with other systems that I can hook into. Sometimes, I’m using multiple apps just to do simple things, which, to me, is really frustrating. Divert attention from what I’m doing, unlock phone, open app, find device, locate option, adjust setting, confirm action was completed. Rinse and repeat.

That first item, at least for me, is the big fail here: Taking my attention away from I’m actively doing. There’s no muscle memory with smartphone or tablet apps. Not even with touchscreen-based controllers that you might mount to a wall. You can’t “feel around” for a real, physical button to press. What’s the answer to this problem? Some might say it’s voice control.

Google Home and 1st-gen Amazon Echo Dot

Google Home and 1st-gen Amazon Echo Dot

Voice control for the smarter home really took off in late 2014 with the launch of the Amazon Echo. The smart, voice-activated speaker allowed tech newbies and geeks alike to just “talk to the room”. This has been possible, technically, for a long time, but only with proprietary solutions and in-wall microphones installed across an entire home. The Echo finally allowed Star Trek-style interactions with “The Computer”, or in this case, Alexa and various other services and devices that you connect to her. Amazon followed up with the less-expensive Echo Dot and Google launched its Home connected smart speaker. Microsoft appears to soon be launching a Cortana speaker with Harman Kardon, Samsung is already failing with their new Bixby assistant, and Apple fans continue to hope that Jony Ive will give them a Siri smart speaker soon. But most all of these “assistants” interpret many commands quite literally, which is currently their Achilles’ heel. Forget what you called a light? “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” will be the response. Can’t quite communicate how you want to feel? (Turn down the A/C, make it warmer in here, lower the temperature…) “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to help with that” comes the pleasant, but unhelpful reply. And, you’ll need to memorize the various names that you give to your home automation scenes and routines.

To be honest, for many of the above reasons, I personally only use voice control for a limited number of scenes that I use most often, and the same thing for specialized routines, individual lights and device controls. I could go bonkers and try to setup every single device and routine to be voice-activated, but right now it’s a lot of work for not much reward. Otherwise, I use voice control for dictation and launching apps on my iPhone. Since I’m actually pretty good at researching topics, and grew up without voice control, I prefer to get information via traditional sources. And, since I’m usually quite picky with where I get various information from, specifically weather information, I rarely ask Siri, Alexa or the Google Assistant (when are they going to give her a name?!) for information. Sometimes I’ll ask for the latest news report or something similar, but something like that usually turns into background noise for me.

Logitech Pop Home Switch, Flic button, Fibaro's "The Button", MicroBot Push, Leviton Z-Wave Controller, Insteon 6-Button Keypad

Logitech Pop Home Switch, Flic button, Fibaro's "The Button", MicroBot Push, Leviton Z-Wave Controller, Insteon 6-Button Keypad

So now we’ve come back full circle, to buttons. I do have to admit, I like buttons. I like to press them. There’s just a certain satisfaction of pressing a physical button and perhaps hearing it click, and maybe even light up, and then something happens. Like elevators. (Secretly, I’m a bit of an elevator geek…shhh, don’t tell anyone.) It’s pretty fun to have a “lift robot” (a.k.a. elevator) to take you where you want to go just by pressing a button. And so the same goes for pressing physical buttons and having your home spring to life with lighting, device control, music and more. More importantly, physical buttons that stay in a familiar place allows for activation of scenes, devices, routines, etc by muscle memory. Need to activate something in the next room and the button is around the corner? Just reach for it, feel for it and press it. You can’t do that with a touchscreen. And you don’t have to memorize the name of the button, just where it is. Brilliant. It’s old-fashioned tech, but very useful today.

Physical buttons are especially important for lighting control. We’ve been used to flipping a light switch or adjusting a physical dimmer control and having something happen instantly. That’s the reason that I feel like opening an app to control lights is pretty useless. OK, not completely useless, but especially so for emergency conditions. Need to flip all the lights on in your home because you heard something late at night? Why bother fiddling with your smartphone and find the app and, yeah, you get it…a waste of precious seconds. Press a physical button close to your bedside and it’s done. Instantly. Of course, depending on the type of physical button that you might use for controlling your home, it might be able to control more than just lighting. And here comes the challenges.

Some of the buttons on the market right now are Bluetooth-based. One of them, the Pop Smart Button from Logitech, comes with a bridge. A bridge? To use a “smart” button? Seriously? Alright, I’m being a little harsh here. Bluetooth-based smart buttons generally only connect with your phone or tablet, which means they only work if your phone/tablet is present at home. They use apps that cross-connect to the services and devices that you desire control of. Order a pizza, get an Uber ride, change the lights to blue, start up a playlist on Spotify, you get it. But all dependent its paired smartphone being present. This isn’t great for homes with multiple family members. Bluetooth buttons like the Logitech one and the Flic button save on battery life, but they also take a little bit of time to “wake-up” and perform the action that you wanted. If that’s ok for you, then you might love them.

To make Bluetooth-only buttons connect with other systems, they relay commands via your smartphone but they could also be paired with a bridge, like the Pop button mentioned above. In that way, the smartphone issue can be avoided and they can still connect to many services, hubs and devices. There’s even a remote-controlled “button pusher” called the MicroBot Push that can lend some smarts to “dumb” devices, and it too works via Bluetooth and can pair with an optional hub for extra home automation fun. There are a few non-Bluetooth buttons on the market that work quicker, but usually do have to be paired with a hub or bridge…read on.

One of the Insteon Keypads in the Smarter Home Life "Home Studios"

One of the Insteon Keypads in the Smarter Home Life "Home Studios"

The only remote controls and buttons on the market right now that have no execution delays and don’t require pairing with your smartphone or tablet use established home automation communication standards. Some are battery-operated, like Fibaro’s new “The Button”, some are even battery-free like the Hue Tap, and others are hard-wired, like Insteon’s Keypads and multi-button Z-Wave controllers from Leviton and others.

I’ll be reviewing some smart buttons coming up soon on Smarter Home Life, but I can tell you that the existing buttons that I use everyday are the ones on the various Insteon Keypads that are installed throughout my home. The keypads, like many other hard-wired controllers and even some of the wireless ones, feature multiple functions per button. So instead of having just 8 actions (1 per button) on my keypads, I have up to 32 functions per keypad…pretty cool, right? And the LEDs behind each button can be remotely controlled to show scene and device status, along with customizable overall backlighting brightness. To be fair, there was a good amount of custom programming done to make these buttons do what they do and the LED indicators to show the current various statuses, but they make my smarter home incredibly easy to control. And they’re used for everything from lighting control, to full control of various systems across my home, and even a somewhat silly “Romance Mode” with soft lighting and music activation. As a bonus feature, these Insteon Keypads also act as local dimmers and switches for the wiring that they’re connected to.

Since having a physical button for every single connected device and/or scene in your home can be a bit costly at $30 per button and up, my advice for buttons is the same as for voice control: Deploy physical buttons for the most common tasks that you perform and devices that you want to control. And, before I get comments like, “what about disabled people, individuals with poor motor control?”, let me backup all my statements and sum up this piece. The best smarter home setup is one that incorporates the best of all methods of control: Physical controls, apps, voice, schedules, sensors and geolocation. With the proper mix of each, your own version of a truly “smart home” can work automatically most of the time and let you step in and make manual adjustments whenever you like…without getting in your way.

Smarter Home Life is going full crowdfunding!

Smarter Home Life is going full crowdfunding!

Home Security and Smart Lighting Giveaway (Ended)

Home Security and Smart Lighting Giveaway (Ended)