My take on CEDIA 2018: The Ultimate Smart Home Show

My take on CEDIA 2018: The Ultimate Smart Home Show

While this year’s CEDIA Expo certainly showcased a tremendous number of high-end connected home products and services, there wasn’t much that was worthy of me thinking “wow!” There were newer versions of control systems, with some new features of course, 8K video was seemingly everywhere…and in some respects—aside from price tags—it started to get hard to tell the difference between the high-end and DIY sides of the market. More on that later.

I continue to feel the smart home industry, whether the “DIY” side or the high-end side, is stuck in a bit of a technology lull. An opinion mostly shared by a few new friends and colleagues that I met at the show. But still, there are some interesting devices and companies out there doing some pretty cool stuff. The CEDIA show itself, even to someone like me who’s been “doing home automation” since the early 90s, is pretty overwhelming. And by the way, this was my first CEDIA Expo.

“What?!” I hear you saying, “you’ve never attended CEDIA before? And you claim to be a smart home guy?!” Yes. It just didn’t happen, due to scheduling, budget or something else. But I made it happen this year.

CEDIA? What is CEDIA?

For the Smarter Home Life audience though, you might not know what the heck this CEDIA thing is. Well, CEDIA is a trade association, and a trade show. CEDIA is the trade association for the connected (or smart) home industry. And the organization goes back nearly three decades. Before IP-based connections, before Alexa, before Z-Wave, before Control4...hell, even before Windows 3.0! In general, CEDIA represents thousands of home technology companies worldwide and there’s an annual trade show called CEDIA EXPO...these days not actually put on by the CEDIA organization, but it’s still just as awesome, so I understand. CEDIA also provides training and certification for home technology companies and professionals.

 Control4 certainly understands this concept.

Control4 certainly understands this concept.

What was new at CEDIA?

Well, quite a bit, so…

As one of my readers, you probably have no context for “what’s new” in the high-end smart home segment, so there’s little reason for me to tell you precisely the latest and greatest in each category. (Awesome publications like CEPro certainly have that covered.) So let instead me try to sum up the high-end smart home segment at CEDIA: There is virtually no smart home challenge that can’t be solved by one or more of the companies exhibiting at the show. While the high-end connected home market is quite mature, it has also come to embrace (some companies more slowly than others) some of the more popular technologies like Alexa and Google Assistant from the DIY side of the market. (But I didn’t see much mention of Cortana or Bixby, sorry guys!)

Here’s a few examples of over-the-top solutions for the homeowner who can afford it all:

  • Want to watch nine different video sources at once on your JVC 8K e-shift projection system? Savant has a solution for that.

  • Want rock-solid, natural-language voice interaction with your smart home that brings together virtually any connected system? Josh has a solution for that.

  • Or, perhaps an automated TV mounting system that elegantly drops down from above the fireplace? MantelMount has a solution for that. (And if you start a fire, it’ll even retract automatically.)

  • How about a DVR that records and stores absolutely everything with a gorgeous “Hey, why didn’t I think of that?” interface, including streaming media? Modulus has you covered.

The moral of the story is this: At CEDIA, any smart home wish can come true, for a price.

 Of course there were enormous video displays on display. Because 8K.

Of course there were enormous video displays on display. Because 8K.

The DIY and high-end markets learn to play nice

At more recent CEDIA Expos, there weren’t just products with “a few extra zeroes” in their prices on display. More familiar names like Ring, Nest, Noon, and even August have made appearances, too. Why? Because customers are asking their installers about them.

And thus, this is what I think is one of the most important—and somewhat unspoken—news from CEDIA: The “brand-creep” into the high-end world from the DIY and direct-to-consumer market segment.

Amazon and Google—and to a lesser extent, Apple—have thrown a wrench into the works of the high-end connected home market, just like they’ve done in the DIY smart home market. Practically every booth at CEDIA had an Amazon Echo, Google Home or some placard stating that their products currently or would soon work with the two big players in the voice control world. Even if you’re well-to-do, you still know what’s hot and want the latest gadget that all your friends have.

Did someone say Alexa?

But it doesn’t stop there. Those Ring video doorbells are pretty cool, right? And how about that Nest thermostat? Because Alexa and Google Assistant already have integrations with those devices, they can technically be made part of a high-end smart home by just bringing an Echo or Google Home into the mix. But that’s not really the vision of a smart home if you ask companies like Savant, Crestron or Control4. They would much rather have every device in the home “natively” integrated with their systems to provide rock-solid reliability for their end users.

One company, Control4, which you may have heard of—I’m seriously being sarcastic here, they’re everywhere in the high-end space—integrates their control systems with just about anything. They literally have thousands of integrations with devices and systems into their award-winning Control4 solutions. And they have fully embraced the new-and-shiny from Nest, Philips Hue, Amazon, Google and more. Why turn your back on up-and-coming gadgets when you can welcome them into the family? Heck, even Kwikset now has an entire line of smart locks that are specifically compatible with Control4, and look oddly similar to their “DIY” smart locks sold through traditional retailers. Not every high-end home control solutions provider has embraced integrations with lower-end products, but Control4 certainly has…and their continued growth shows that it was the right way to go.

I personally feel that this cross-over is going to continue, although I don’t necessarily see it also going fully the other direction, from the high-end to the DIY side. But certainly there are bits of the more expensive smart home systems that do filter down into the more direct-to-consumer market. Sure, you can change the settings on your smart thermostat from anywhere in the world, but in the high-end market, things are taken to the Nth degree.

What makes the high-end…high-end?

Something else to understand about the high-end connected home market is that the systems aren’t just multiple notches above the DIY stuff, they are unbelievably configurable by the installers remotely—to save on trips to the customer when they request changes or something doesn’t work. Some of these features, like reconfiguring lighting scenes and adjust scheduling, of course, now exist in consumer DIY devices like the Lutron Caseta system and smart thermostats. But on the high-end side, I’m talking about being able to remotely perform tasks like remapping audio and video inputs and outputs between completely different brands of equipment, all being tied into control systems from companies like Savant, Crestron, Control4, and to a large extent, Josh, too.

Let me add one last note about the high-end connected home. And that’s…reliability. That one word is really the name of the game in this high-end space. And it fully separates this market from the DIY side of things. It’s more important than practically anything else. Beyond the fact that the combined components of a high-end smart home tend to cost tens of thousands of dollars…when you press “Cocktail Hour” on your living room touch panel, you expect your home to subtly transform with light, shades to open, fireplaces to ignite and the appropriate music to play. High-end homeowners don’t have time, interest or the knowledge to be their own tech support. If things don’t work 100% of the time, heads are probably going to roll.

 For the highest of the high-end, Savant includes two Mac Pros for processing all of the data in the most complex smart homes. (OK, ok, one is just for backup.)

For the highest of the high-end, Savant includes two Mac Pros for processing all of the data in the most complex smart homes. (OK, ok, one is just for backup.)

Why is it that I seem to know quite a bit about the high-end smart home tech after only attending one CEDIA show? Well, to make a long story short, I got an up-close glimpse at this industry about 20 years ago. A guy that I was seeing in the mid-90s was a technical integrator for a high-end home technology and home theatre (or is it theater?) installer here in the greater Phoenix area. Through his own headaches with configuring control systems like Crestron and AMX, and needing to cross-link hardware with serial cables, IR and other old-fashioned methods...I learned quite a bit about what was possible, even back then. Again, the customers expected the stuff to work 100% of the time, and therefore the systems had to be incredibly robust.

And, it pretty much goes without saying that I was also introduced to high-end home theatre at the time. And I was thus exposed to brands like Vidikron with their Pininfarina-designed projectors, Stewart Filmscreen, Meridian Audio, and KEF. (At one customer’s home that was still being built, my other half’s company had experimented with two KEF subwoofers...and evidently rattled screws right out of the drywall. Or so the story went.) Most of those names are still exhibiting at CEDIA, and creating stunningly beautiful products…and it was great to experience them up-close once again.

 Good one, Stewart Filmscreen!

Good one, Stewart Filmscreen!

The “Best” of CEDIA 2018

The answer to this really depends on who you ask. Smarter Home Life certainly doesn’t have the staff to make this kind of determination, but I’ll certainly give you my thoughts. Since the high-end smart home market is indeed mature at this stage, announcements from existing companies tend to be iterative and not necessarily revolutionary.

Connected-home companies such as Control4 and Savant both unveiled new features and functionality for their existing solutions. Savant added Alexa and Google Assistant interfaces that can help their users create voice commands for their smart homes seemingly without contacting their installer for assistance. Along similar lines, Control4 added new abilities for their users to add many of their favorite music streaming services, along with giving homeowners more direct control of modifying programming, lighting scenes, voice control and more, through their When >> Then interface.

All of that sounds great, especially in the context that it wasn’t available before to homeowners. It frees up installers to focus on the things that really matter, like ensuring that the systems overall are reliable and that the customer’s needs are being met, instead of making tiny modifications to lighting scenes and the like anytime the customer requests an adjustment.

I met with numerous companies at CEDIA, read press releases, interviewed CEOs and spent a dizzying nearly three days on the show floor. But what did I truly find innovative? The requirements had to be that, at least in my eyes, it was something that had not been done before. And, that it was “done right” by the company who produced the product service.

While 8K was certainly everywhere in the video and projection category, I feel like it is really over-hyped at this point, unless you have a very, very large screen where more pixels actually make sense. (And, where’s the content?) And, for a lot of other categories, I just felt that what was being showcased were either iterative upgrades, or existing products. Were they “wow”? Sure! Automatic TV mounts and adjust, pivot and fold? Pretty darn cool. But, “the best”? Nah.

I’ve picked two products that stood out in my mind at CEDIA 2018. The second having already been announced and now entering production, but was still “new” to me. From CEDIA Innovation Alley, the Altro combination smart lock and doorbell. And the Modulus M1 all-in-one home media system. These products stand out as solving problems and bring features together that their competitors just don’t offer in a single product.

The Altro smart lock and video doorbell

The Altro is a sleek, innovative home security product that I nearly missed, as I was ensuring I had seen most all of the show on its last day. It combines a video doorbell and a completely keyless, smart door lock into a Bluetooth and Wi-Fi device. It can unlock based on its smartphone app, Bluetooth proximity or entering a code on its touchscreen. The unit looks very similar front to back, with a glossy black finish, and you don’t have to worry about re-keying your lock, because physical keys aren’t even an option. With a swappable battery pack, Altro promises 2 to 4 months of battery life. That’s pretty good, considering it’s a Wi-Fi product. That means no additional bridge or hub required, definitely a bonus. Available now for $349.

The Modulus M1 home media system

The Modulus M1 is also an all-in-one device, but of another sort. This one takes the cake, in my opinion. Modulus combines a DVR, Blu-Ray/DVD/CD player, networked movie server, streaming video and music, and personal media organizer into one. It’s a “why didn’t I invent that” kind of product, that actually has a beautiful, totally functional interface. (Could this be what Steve Jobs was thinking of when he said “I cracked it!”) For me, the killer app of the Modulus is that it can record from streaming media sources like Netflix, Hulu and the like. Never worry again that your favorite series is going to disappear from your streaming service of choice at the end of the month. The Modulus interface is incredibly fast and fluid, even with an on-screen mouse that you can control from the remote, and the gorgeous interface operates the same across the various categories of TV, music, streaming and more. Want to store your DVD and Blu-Ray library? No problem. Music / iTunes? No problem. I can’t really describe everything, but I did have a full demo and it was truly unbelievable. Modulus will cost you a pretty penny, at least for the moment, but it’s completely worth it. Learn more about Modulus at their site.

What’s Next?

Yes, today’s high-end home has infinitely higher-resolution video displays at much larger sizes than had even been conceived in the 80s and 90s. And the systems that control the flow of data, commands, audio and video throughout such homes now largely run on IP-based systems, generally still carried over miles of bundled cabling...but increasingly wirelessly to a certain extent. Today, more control over more devices, and more configurable and controllable features of those devices multiplies the tasks of the modern high-end smart home installer.

While the folks over at Josh are certainly working on AI for the smart home, after talking with them at length, I still felt that AI is mostly a buzzword. (To give them credit, I was still very impressed with what Josh can do, but it still seemed like a lot of manual setup.) At this point, whether you pay an installer a large sum of money to create the smart home of your dreams, or you “do it yourself”, there’s still a lot of algorithms, pre-programmed triggers and schedules that make a smart home what it is today. Sensors, of course, help it to be a bit more proactive. But until your home can actually “learn” from your own actions and routines over time, and make adjustments and suggestions, it’s still just going to be the “connected home” and not necessarily “smart”. I didn’t specifically see that at this year’s CEDIA. (But I’m sure the companies are working on it in their secret labs!)

Our homes, connected or otherwise, are unique and personal spaces. It’s why there is no “one size fits all” solution for the smart home beyond the very basics, like being notified about a security sensor, or a water leak. The rest of it, especially in a comfort and convenience category like lighting...has to be taken care of by professionals for the high-end consumer. And for the DIY consumer, you’re left with being inspired by YouTube videos and ideas from your friends. Because certainly Amazon and Google can’t tell you how to design an appropriate lighting system for your home, at least not yet.

After all this time, what continues to separate the “men and boys” of the high-end and DIY segments of this industry, is the price of their smart home toys.

(A video recap of CEDIA 2018, with interviews and more, is forthcoming on the Smarter Home Life YouTube channel.)

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