Hands-on: Savant shows off their iPad interface
The systems aren't cheap; even the low-end systems will run you from five to ten thousand dollars, and of course, the sky's the limit on how luxurious you want to get. The good news, though, is that by using the iPad, Savant is actually able to put more value into the systems that they do sell. Before the iPad, a significant chunk of the cost was taken up by "glass," as founder Robert Madonna told us -- huge, expensive touchscreens that relied on custom, often clunky software. However, with the iPad, Savant can just hook into Apple's already available tools and hardware, and create much better looking applications that run on official hardware and lower the end cost.
Because the software is so customizable (it's designed to work with any number of AV or automation inputs, and can even scale up to controlling multiple homes' worth of different audio zones and automation, each with various profiles for certain users), it's tough for Savant to demo an "average" installation. They do have a demo environment (which TUAW visited a little while ago -- stay tuned for news and video from that visit), but at this event, we basically just got to play with the new iPad app and see the possibilities.
The options were pretty impressive. The iPad's bigger screen allows for much more breathing room on device controls, and while the extreme customization made for layouts that weren't always elegant (the layouts are custom-made for each device controlled by the app, so the controls for your cable television look very different from the controls for your docked iPod), they were more than functional, with smooth sliders for lights and large, inviting buttons for controlling media and sound. Various functions in the home are accessed through icons on either side of the screen (so you'd press "Lights" to see a list of all the controlled lights in the house), and then a pop-up allows you to scroll through the list to choose the lights you want to control. Clicking on the right choices brings up a larger interface, and from there, you can program any number of buttons to do what you want to do: change lights to a certain dimmer setting, open or close doors, or start up or control various media.
The icons are even customizable inside the app; you can create profiles and menus of your own controls, and even use images from the iPad to set up your own icons and system categories. Just building on Apple's UI makes Savant's iPad interface much better looking than any of the custom interfaces for home automation in the past. Even Madonna agreed that their previous interfaces were all "menu-driven," and the iPad's display is much more visual and intuitive.
The app also uses video very smoothly; you can hook it into security cameras, and access video from those directly on the iPad. It all works over a Wi-Fi signal right now, but when the 3G version is released, Savant told us that they'll be working on a remote system over the Internet. Such a system would mean that, after everything is installed, you'd be able to control your lights and appliances even if you were on vacation elsewhere.
Prices vary a lot. Savant sells to home entertainment and automation dealers, who then install solutions for customers, so this definitely isn't a DIY project for everyone. They do sell the app for $10, but of course, without hooking into Savant's hardware, it's useless; the $10 price is just to keep free downloaders from picking it up accidentally.
Still, the interface is pretty impressive, and Savant is super excited about being able to use Apple's UI and hardware in their own home automation solutions. Madonna was adamant that Apple's tablet will "revolutionize" the home automation industry. He expects that all of Savant's touchscreens under 9 inches will be completely overtaken by the iPad, and that customers just won't care about any other touchscreen solutions when they've got Apple's hardware already. Madonna says that he thinks the business will expand, rather than suffer, because of the iPad, and that customers who were previously hesitant to "waste money on expensive glass" will find a lot of value in automating their home from the iPad.
It definitely seems cool. While a serious home automation system is probably still out of the average consumer's reach for another few years, a device like the iPad does go a long way in bringing the price and accessibility a little closer to the mainstream. In a few years, you may indeed be starting up your toaster or lowering your garage door directly from your iPad.
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