My HomeVision test system arrived from Craig at Custom Solutions Inc. in a small box which included everything needed to get up and running. The controller itself is literally a small black box with LED’s and IR Send and Receive Windows on the front and ports for power, serial cable, video in and out, TW-523 and IR extension on the back. All the cables (except video) are included as is the TW-523 for X10 communications. The software comes on 3 disks and a comprehensive manual tells all. Inside the box are the Input / Output terminals (8 relay drivers, 8 digital inputs and 8 digital input/outputs). Unfortunately you must take the top off the box to get at these and run the wires out a slot in the back. (CSI offers a “Port Extender” that brings these out to a separate board to simplify connections.)
I turned to Chapter 3 of the manual for “Quick Start” instructions and had the connections done and software installed in no time. The instructions for setup are well done and there are self tests for verifying operation of X10, IR, serial interface and video. This is handy as you can readily make sure that each function is operating before you start to program the system.
As with any control system, the first thing to do is define the devices. One of my only criticisms of the manual and help system is that it really doesn’t tell you to do this first (although it’s obvious to those familiar with home controllers, it may not be to a novice). Setting up X10 devices is easy however … just fill in the name of each unit by it’s corresponding code. The “Load Name” column should be checked if you want the system to display the name rather than the code alone on the TV screens. Although there is no “Help” button on the summary, context sensitive help is available from any screen by pressing F1. The column entitled “ON ACTIONS DEFINED” allows you to use one X10 code to run a series of commands (more on this later). There’s also a field to define OFF actions and a field to write in a description.
Another screen allows you to manually control all of your X10 devices and a handy “Grid Controller” lets you see the status of all devices. Right click on the grid and you can manually control the corresponding device. The little window in the bottom right hand corner lets you see the X10 signals received by the system. A handy way to make sure your remote controller is working.
I/O Port Setup
Inside HomeVision you’ll find terminals to connect 8 relay drivers, 8 digital inputs and 8 digital outputs (actually the last 8 can be configured as inputs or outputs). The relay drivers can be used to drive relays, solenoids, LED’s etc. The digital inputs are for such things as motion sensors, magnetic switches (security systems), smoke alarms etc. Digital outputs can be used to drive digital logic or low power peripheral devices such as LED’s. As with your X10 devices, you must tell HomeVision what each device is that you connect to these terminals. For example the relay driver outputs are defined on the following screen.
Inputs on the other hand provide more options to set up since you will probably want the system to do something if a signal is received from one of these devices.
And of course you may want to test or manually command these devices. HomeVision lets you do that as well.
HomeVision has IR send and receive capability. You can teach the system to send commands to your home using any IR remote control and it can send IR commands to your entertainment system from any program, schedule or home control interface. Setting up the IR system can take a bit of time however depending on the complexity you require.
The first thing to do is teach HomeVision all of the IR codes that you plan to use. The signals can be used either to send commands to your system or to operate the Video Menuing Screens (more on these later).
A handy feature built into HomeVision allows you to test your “Standard” Remote and read the IR Codes from each button. These codes can then be listed (similar process to listing X10 devices) on the IR signal list.
In addition, the system can learn the codes from a non standard remote so that you can have the unit send these as part of a command.
Once you gone through this somewhat tedious process you can program HomeVision to send IR commands to your equipment as well as use your remote to send signals to HomeVision and have it perform control functions.
The other important feature that requires IR control is the Video Command mode.
Video Output Setup
HomeVision can control your system from a series of Menus displayed on your TV screen and controlled with an IR remote control. This is a couch potatoes dream come true. Fortunately, setting up an IR remote for video is reasonable easy. The best method is to use a OneForAll (or similar) multi device remote that has a spare TV device setting. HomeVision has several TV device codes built in so you need only select one of these for your remote control device and tell HomeVision which one you will use (by entering the correct device code).
The system will fill in the correct key codes for you. You can of course alter the key usage if you like by changing the key codes manually. HomeVision will now use these keys to control the Video Menus. To use the video system you need to install a video cable (with RCA jack each end) from HomeVision to your TV or VCR video input. There are several built in Menus but these can be customized and new ones added.
The Video Control screen lets you customize settings and command the video system directly. This one is kind of fun as you can write all kinds of weird messages to your TV screen if you’re so inclined. In typewriter mode you can even pretend that you’re Doogie Houser and write out some meaningful life lessons.
OK, so now we’ve got everything set up and defined … whew! I guess you have to expect a lot of setup when you’re using a system as powerful as HomeVision. The good thing is that this work only has to be done once (except when new equipment is added). Now let’s get to the fun stuff … programming this beast. Oh by the way don’t forget to download all of this stuff to the controller before you try to use it. This is another small criticism I have. HomeVision doesn’t prompt you to download and the manual and help system don’t really cover it well. Obvious for experienced users but a mystery to a novice. It would be nice if each set-up and control screen had a download button.
Programming your HomeVision is fairly straight forward and doesn’t require knowledge beyond a basic understanding of computer logic (i.e. If (something happens) Then (do something else) Else (do another thing). The software is set up so you basically push buttons to build your schedules and programs. Once again these code modules must be downloaded to the controller before they will function. Let’s take a look at the basic program features and see how HomeVision builds and implements them.
By the way, this discussion of programming applies to most of the Home Automation systems available today. The logic is the same but each manufacturer has a different method of presenting the information to the user (i.e. the user interface). With my old Enerlogic 1400e I had to learn the programming language (similar to BASIC) and write in the code line by line. Many techies still prefer this method as it is very fast if you know what you are doing. Fortunately for those of us who don’t program every day, modern systems manufacturers provide us with a simple interface to build our code. So, here’s how HomeVision does that.
Everything that happens in your home automation system does so because of an input of data (the IF part of the logic). Remember those “On / Off Actions Defined” columns in the X10, IR etc. setup screens. (Click here for a reminder) This is where you enter your code modules … in other words, an X10 ON action means IF X10 device A2 goes ON Then do whatever I say here. Clicking on an Actions Defined cell brings up the code building interface which lets you tell the program what you want it to do.
So, in this case IF you command the LR Ceiling Lights ON with a pushbutton for example THEN the TV will turn on and the Entertainment Center Lights will turn on. But we didn’t have to type in these command lines. The pushbuttons on the left of the screen represent the THEN options for each type of device. If you click on the X10 button for example the following screen is presented where you select what you want to happen and then click OK. The software writes the line of code for you.
As you can see by the array of buttons, you can build complex commands with HomeVision including nested IF/THEN statements, macros etc. This means that every IF action that you define can do a multitude of THEN actions. Hence the need to structure your logic a bit so that you don’t end up with a quagmire of interrelated actions happening. (Read my Editorial this month on “Structuring your Logic”.)
Let’s take a look at the THEN actions that you can program with the HomeVision. These are the buttons on the Defined Actions Screen.
* X10 – Send X10 commands to your devices.
* CONTROLLER – Tell the controller to do something internal (i.e. Start a log file, transmit the time and date etc.)
* IN /OUT – Enable a digital input or activate an output.
* FLAG – Clear, Set, Toggle etc. a flag (Note: Flags are used to tell the system that a certain state is in effect. For example you may have defined a flag to indicate that it’s daytime or evening. Your program would then toggle this flag depending on the time of day etc.)
* MACRO – Run a macro (series of commands). Macros are defined using another module built into HomeVision.
* VARIABLE – Manipulate the value of a defined variable.
* IR – Send an IR command.
* TIMER – Start or stop a timer.
* DELAY – Wait for a time period before executing the next command.
* SCHEDULED EVENT – Enable, Disable or Do a scheduled event.
* PERIODIC EVENT – Enable, Disable or Do a periodic event.
* IF/THEN/ELSE – Use nested logic statements.
* SERIAL – Send an ASCII string to your PC via the serial port. This can be used to have the controller send you messages etc.
* NOTE – Allows you to insert comments into your program (important for future reference).
* OTHER – Presents a list of other features and devices which you can command. Presently these are CALLER ID and THERMOSTAT.
Using this interface it is possible to build very complex command structures without writing any code. Each option presents you with a popup screen similar to the X10 screen shown above with relevant options available for the device or logic to be controlled.
That’s about it as far as setting up your HomeVision to control just about everything imaginable.
So what do I think? Or do you really care. I’ll list some Pros and Cons here but I’ve tried to cover most of the features in the review so that you can judge for yourself. If you’re still not sure then download the Demo and try it out. You don’t need any hardware to play with the software and get a good feeling for its interface and capabilities.
– Stand Alone Operation (PC required for programming only).
– Easy hardware setup with good instructions and testing procedures.
– Allows many optional control interfaces including TV screen.
– Complex but friendly programming interface.
– Good manual and online help.
– Batteries included (i.e. you don’t need to buy extra cables etc. to get the system to work … except the Video).
– Beats the hell out of my old Enerlogic unit.
– Tedious setup procedures for IR and Video functions (perhaps unavoidable considering the options available).
– Limited communications features (i.e. telephone interface etc.)
– Won’t vacuum or do the dishes.
I’m told by CSI that version 2.5 of the software is now available. It adds the following features:
* Adds a weather conditions video screen.
* Adds “data log” function for recording data. The data log can store up to 65K bytes of data, which can later be transmitted over the serial interface.
* Adds a thermostat configuration screen to the TV menu system. The user can now configure two RCS TX10 or TX10-B thermostats entirely from the TV with just a few button presses.
* The Multifunction Expansion Board can now connect to Dallas Semiconductor digital temperature sensors. Up to 64 sensors can be connected using just 3 wires total.
As you can see, this is a powerful little black box with a powerful PC interface to go along with it. There are many other features which I have not touched on. For example you can add more IO port expansion boards, control your RCS thermostats, use a modem to program or control your system remotely etc. In addition, Custom Solutions are continuously upgrading the software and hardware available. Upgrades are downloadable from the internet. And, if you want to absolutely bananas have a look at my review of HomeVoice in this issue. With it you can control your HomeVision with your voice from any room in the house. Just talk to the walls.