Control4

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Control4 is Salt Lake County, Utah, manufacturer of home theater and automation controllers, which are branded and sold under the same name.

Products[edit]

Its primary product is a Linux-based appliance dubbed a Home Controller which manages all the connected electronic devices in a consumer's home. Such devices may include Control4's own products (such as light switches, zoned audio amplifiers, networked thermostats, and touch-screen keypads) as well as an ample variety of third party products (such as common name-brand televisions, alarm panels, security cameras). Support for generic electrical connections such as contacts and relays is natively built-in, and a "driver wizard" and comprehensive script-based driver development kit are provided to home theater dealers to facilitate connection to other equipment.

A typical dealer often builds out and installs custom theater rooms, resells theater gear such as projectors and furniture, and typically sells solutions from multiple manufacturers (often including Control4's competitors, notable ones including AMX LLC and Crestron).

A Windows-based software package called Composer is offered to homeowners and allows the electronics in a home to perform scripted or scheduled actions chosen by the homeowner. For example, the thermostat can be scripted to automatically turn off the air conditioning when the alarm system is armed and the occupants are away, or a voice announcement can play over speakers if the garage door is left open. A subscription-based service called 4Sight permits a homeowner to remotely access the equipment in the home via a PC web browser or using an iOS or Android smart phone or tablet with the MyHome application. With 4Sight, a homeowner who is away might see the home temperature, set the alarm, turn off the lights, and ensure the garage door is closed from remote.

The product includes extensive support for controlling audio and video equipment (via infrared, RS-232, and/or TCP/IP), and for cataloging and selecting media. Media includes physical media such as CDs and DVDs on single and multi-disc players, and also networked files. A Wireless Music Bridge offers AirPlay, Bluetooth, and DLNA audio streaming from phones, tablets, and computers complete with the capability of controlling the device and seeing the song metadata and cover art on the Control4 user interface products as the music plays.

Control4 principally sells its products through an authorized dealer network. A complete Control4 system can only be purchased through an authorized dealer. The Composer software package available to the homeowner allows programming of the system features but prohibits the homeowner from adding or changing hardware without dealer assistance. Such assistance, when needed, can be provided remotely over the Internet.

Room model[edit]

A significant concept embodied by the Control4 system is the concept of controlling "rooms", rather than the equipment within a room. In Control4's model, home entertainment devices that produce music or video (such as DVD players, iPods, or cable boxes) are not constrained to belonging to the room in which they are physically located.

The Control4 system is programmed with a list of rooms in a house, along with a connection map (which is set by the dealer) that tells the system what connections are present between all the equipment in the home. The menu for any given room will list all the devices in the entire house that the Home Controller determines can be brought into that room with the connections it is aware of.

A brief contrasting example is helpful in understanding the difference between the room model and the lack thereof. A typical non-Control4 home entertainment user follows the model of controlling "devices". To watch a DVD movie, one sits down, turns on the television, and might choose an input on the TV (example: INPUT 1) to view the DVD player. Then the user turns the DVD player on, loads the movie, and presses play. If the user wants to enjoy true surround audio, he or she often must also push something on the receiver or amplifier to cause that to happen.

On the other hand, a user using Control4 picks up a remote designated for that specific room, then presses "WATCH", and then selects "DVD". At that point:

  • The Home Controller turns on the television automatically - and knows not to inadvertently turn it off if it is already on.
  • The Home Controller sets the television to the appropriate input, based on the connection diagram programmed into it by the dealer
  • The Home Controller turns on the DVD player.
  • The Home Controller turns on the audio receiver, and sets it for digital surround audio from the DVD player.
  • The Home Controller knows from that point on, that all DVD-related commands on the remote should be forwarded to the DVD player, and that the volume and mute should be forwarded to the audio receiver.
  • When the user is done, the user presses a single button - ROOM OFF - and those three components promptly power off.

While saving the user two or three keystrokes is arguably of negligible benefit in itself, the room model provides an easy-to-understand conceptualization when the system is wired to share equipment across an entire house. For example, consider the same example, but with a 400-disc DVD changer and a DVR shared via a matrix switch so the entire movie library and the DVR's recorded shows can be accessed in any of five or six rooms within a single house. A matrix switch is a relatively low-cost third-party accessory that enables audio and video signals to be switched across multiple TVs in multiple rooms, and is natively supported by the Control4 system.

With such a setup, all five or six rooms can access that entire movie library and the same DVR using the same methodology. When a user selects "WATCH DVD" in any room, the Home Controller turns that room's TV on, and instructs the matrix switch to deliver the selected signal to that room, while appropriately forwarding any commands on that user's remote to the appliance being watched.

The matrix switch provides a meaningful simplification of the installation. Due to its ability to switch signals, each room in a house needs only a single audio and video connection to the matrix switch to gain access to all of the appliances attached to the switch.

Supported devices[edit]

Out of the box, the device understands how to generically operate several classes of devices. While the Control4 system can be made to support virtually any device with which it can communicate through the creation of a custom driver, its native generic device support includes:

Proprietary products[edit]

While Control4's system supports a significant number of third party products, Control4 manufactures a lineup of products of its own, specially geared toward home automation application. Most of the products can be embedded in a wall or a light-switch gangbox, or mounted in a standard 19" equipment rack (as appropriate for the specific application).

Representative products include the following:

  • Touch screens. Control4's touch screens come in varying sizes and are either permanently mounted into a wall or are free-standing (similar in form to a small Tablet PC). The touch screens offer a unified interface for controlling all of the equipment on the system, though notably they cannot be used for playback of media.
  • Multi-Channel Amplifiers. These specialized amplifiers switch audio to speakers in "zones" throughout a house, similar to a consumer amplifier. However, they intentionally lack the typical front-panel controls found in a consumer amplifier, and instead are completely controlled by the Home Controller via an Ethernet connection, which in turn makes such controls available to the user on touch screens or on handheld remotes. The automated control allows for novel features, such as the system temporarily interrupting audio to play a voice announcement or doorbell over the speakers, followed by resumption of the original audio at its original volume level.
  • Light Switches. Control4's light switches replace the standard "gang box" switches found in homes, and allow the lighting to be controlled by programming the Home Controller. Typical programming might include scheduled outdoor lighting, or single-button "scenes" involving multiple lights. These switches communicate via wireless (Zigbee), come in both relay and dimmer versions, and somewhat interestingly, each have two multi-color LEDs whose colors can be programmatically changed by the homeowner's automation scripts and can therefore serve as status indicators.
  • Wall Keypads. These fit in light switch boxes, but instead provide buttons (two, three, or six) that can be used as three-way (or multiple-way) light switches or to trigger actions on the Home Controller. Each such button includes a color-changing LED like the light switch.
  • Contact/Relay Extenders provide relays and contact inputs at a distance from the Home Controller, bridging the distance with Ethernet or wireless connectivity. One might be typically installed in a garage to sense the position of the door and/or to activate the door opener.
  • Speaker Points are individual special-purpose amplifiers that allow speaker zones to be installed far away from the Home Controller, optionally without any wiring when running wire is inconvenient or impossible. Audio can be sent to a Speaker Point via analog, or streamed over Ethernet or wirelessly; the same benefits (such as break-in announcements) are available the same way as on the proprietary amplifiers. Speaker points use WiFi for wireless connectivity, as Zigbee lacks the bandwidth to stream audio in real-time.
  • Thermostats allow programmatic control over heating and cooling systems. Control4's thermostats are generally proprietary replacements of standard thermostats on the market. They look and function like normal household thermostats, but can report the temperature to the Home Controller and can be manipulated with programming scripts.
  • Handheld remote controls look and feel exactly like the typical infrared remote controls normally included with home theater equipment, but differ substantially in function. They are specifically designed to control equipment which may not be in the same room (and line of sight) as the user. Control4's remotes exclusively use Zigbee radio communication to issue commands through the Home Controller, which typically issues infrared commands to the currently selected appliance using a wired emitter eye attached to the appliance.

Communication[edit]

The Control4 system uses TCP/IP over Ethernet as its primary and preferred method of communication between appliances. Secondarily, it natively supports Zigbee, which is a wireless mesh networking protocol for appliances based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. Zigbee communication is the primary form of communication for products which are typically not installed near an Ethernet connection (light switches, thermostats, and handheld remote controls). Notably, due to the mesh design, Zigbee devices with a constant power source may serve as repeaters for messages between devices that are otherwise too far apart to communicate directly. Each Home Controller includes a Zigbee radio which can serve as a master node or coordinator for the wireless mesh.

Further, the system natively supports RS-232 serial communication, and it comprehensively supports learning and emitting infrared signals for automatically controlling home theater equipment.

References[edit]

  1. Official website
  2. Wilkinson, Darryl (February 2006). "Control4 Media Controller System". Home Theater Magazine.
  3. Sciacca, John (February/March 2006). "Control4 Whole-House Music Server/Automation System". Sound & Vision Magazine.