It wasn’t all that long ago that, to change channel on your TV, you actually had to get off the sofa, walk over to the set (that’s what they were called in those days – TV ‘sets’) and press a button or twiddle a knob. You may even have had to thump the top of the telly a couple of times or fiddle with the aerial (which was on top of the TV) to get a better picture. Then, when it got dark, you were forced off the sofa once again to draw the curtains and turn on the lights. Frankly, it was all a huge inconvenience (although, to be fair, there were only three TV channels back then).
Fast-forward 30 years and things are very different. For a start, there are now hundreds of TV channels to choose from, and the way we control the entertainment systems has also changed massively. First we had hard-wired remote controls that trailed wires across your living room, then we had infrared remote controls for the TV, the VHS, the satellite decoder and the CD player. By the early ’90s our houses were awash with remote controllers (and, of course, you could always find every single one of them – except the one you actually wanted).
And all this technology moved onto our boats as well, meaning that the average superyacht often came with dozens of remote controllers to orchestrate entertainment systems in each of the cabins, public areas and the crew quarters. Meanwhile, domotics (the use of wired and wireless protocols to control domestic systems and appliances) was making significant steps forward in the domestic markets, with X10 and higher-bandwidth systems enabling users to control almost any electrical device within the home.
Crestron, one of the major players in the world of superyacht control systems, started out in the domestic market.
‘When Crestron first started, around 40 years ago, there was no such thing as a TV remote control,’ explains Robin van Meeuwen, vice-president of sales and marketing for Crestron International, ‘so we were making remote controls for garage doors. The company then made a major step forward by supplying wired-in remote controls for slide projectors and lighting dimming equipment.
‘Then came a very basic electroluminescent touchscreen, which controlled the slide projector, controlled the screen coming down, and although nowadays this seems like the Stone Age, at the time it was very high-tech indeed.
‘When I joined the company 15 years ago we were selling 10-inch touch panels for which we charged around $20,000, and we couldn’t make them fast enough. They were all used in the presentation environment and about 10 years ago, all the chief executives and managing directors using this equipment in their meeting rooms decided they wanted similar control systems in their homes.
‘Because they had 10 remote controls around the house for all their entertainment systems, they could see the benefit of having a single integrated controller. At the same time those high-net-worth individuals, using our products at work and in their homes, started taking it to their yachts.’
'There has also been a shift, not just in the use of our control panels, but also in the technology used,' continues Creston's Robin van Meeuwen. 'These days people are looking for total integration, and that means more than just touch panels and control systems.
'Customers want a system that integrates seamlessly, and that is why we started to make amplifiers, surround-sound processors, specialist video distribution networks and processors, loudspeakers and light dimming systems, so we are offering owners and shipyards a total working solution.
'Our Digital Media range accounts for 40 to 50 per cent of our business, and it allows users to send signals over Cat 5 or fibre-optic, which means you can plug in multiple devices and send signals up to 300m using Cat 5, or 1,000 metres using fibre-optic. In the past this would have required huge amounts of cabling which adds weight and complexity to any setup.
'And whatever new technology comes in the future, our Digital Media system will be able to handle it. We have to future-proof, so that we can accommodate whatever is in the pipeline in terms of technology, display and entertainment
'With regard to the future, gesture control will undoubtedly be one of the next big things, which will enable you to control systems simply with hand movements. But whatever comes in the next few years, we need to make sure we can accommodate that simply and easily with existing technology.
'Crestron isn't just an entertainments system supplier, we are a building management systems supplier. Yes, we can pipe music and video around a 100m yacht, but of greater value to the owner is our technology that allows the owner and/or captain to monitor equipment usage and energy usage.
'It's very important we can interface with any other third-party device, such as a tablet computer or smart phone. So we are now creating software tools which allow such devices to control a Crestron system. My dream is to create a system whereby my iPad or iPhone can control all the systems in my home, all the systems at my office, and all the systems on board my yacht.'
Interestingly, according to Peter Bouman at Lantic Systems, he has recently seen a move away from touchscreens towards a more traditional and tactile experience.
‘We have seen a demand from some customers for a more traditional keypad with natural, mechanical feedback. Next to the buttons on the keypad we can program OLEDs to display the function of each button, and each button has up to three “layers”. This means, for instance, that one button can be assigned to each system in the cabin (TV, MP3 player, air-conditioning, lights, blinds…), and pushing one button, for example TV, then changes the function and labels on all the other buttons on the keypad to be TV-specific.
This combination of high-tech meets old-world will certainly appeal to a slightly more traditional market, and it’s no coincidence that car manufacturers spend fortunes making sure their switches and handles provide exactly the right kind of feel and feedback. Lantic still supplies the majority of its control systems through an Apple interface, but clearly some customers still prefer to do things the old-fashioned way.
So what’s next? Gesture-control may be the next Big Thing, but my guess is that voice control will be more useful and more adaptable. After all, if I can write this article without once putting my hands on the keyboard or mouse of my computer, simply using dictation software (Dragon Dictate, if you’re interested), there’s no reason why you can’t control systems on board your superyacht simply with voice commands. Maybe a HAL 9000 is just around the corner!October 2012
Photography courtesy of Crestron, PSP Audio & Video, Technik and Lantic