HouseLinc is packaged with everything needed to get up and running. The controller itself is an attractive and compact plastic box with 4 LED’s on the front (IR, Status/X10, IR Out) and ports for power, serial cable, powerline interface (TW-523), option plug and 4 IR outputs on the back. All the cables are included as is the TW-523 for X10 communications. The software comes on 1 disk and a 4 page quickstart guide tells you how to set the system up. A 9V battery is required which keeps the HouseLinc clock accurate during power outages.
Using the “Quick Start” instructions I had the connections done and software installed in no time. The system setup is easy with a nice feature which allows you to view the help system (and a schematic of the physical connections required) during the software installation. Select a COM port and Location (for the sunrise sunset data) and away you go. Unfortunately the system doesn’t confirm correct COM with the unit during setup but it’s easy to change the COM port after the software is running.
HouseLinc is a stand alone controller that you program with a PC. Once the program has been downloaded to the unit, the PC can be shut down and HouseLinc will continue to control your Home. The system will control X-10 devices as well as send IR commands to any of 4 output zones.
Lets have a look at the main PlatoTW window for an overview of how the system interfaces with the user.
As you can see, PlatoTW allows a graphic floorplan to be imported. By defining some drawings (bit maps) of the various rooms in your home and using them to create “blueprint” windows, you can define the placement of units about your home, and virtually walk around your home, controlling lamps and appliances. You can create these bit maps with any “home design” package, and either save them directly to a bit map file, or capture the blueprint in a bit map using the WinCap application (included with Plato). If you have a scanner, you could also capture a photograph of your room(s) and use this to create blueprint windows.
This window along with others to define and manipulate the system are displayed in the main program window and can be minimized along the bottom for easy access. Icons for the “Units” under control can be dragged and dropped into position on the “Main Blueprint” and controlled from there. For example, double click on a light icon to turn it on and off. There is even a level bar on the icon to control dimming. Plato comes with many icons for various devices and you can design and add your own if you’re so inclined. The same is true of the IR icons in the Blueprint window. Double clicking on a TV icon for example opens a window with all of the buttons for controlling the TV. This is lots of fun and a very handy tool. More on IR setup etc. later.
X-10 Device Set Up
Setting up your X-10 devices is the first thing to do once you have the system running. This is accomplished using the “Units” window. Click on “Add” and a window opens which allows you to select the house code, icon etc. That’s all there is to it. Push the OK button and the icon appears in the “Units” window. Drag this icon to the “Blueprint” window to position it in the correct location and you’re finished.
IR Device Set Up
Plato has a powerful IR Wizard which makes setting up icons for devices which you can control with IR commands (like TVs, VCRs, CD players, satellite dishes) easy and simple. You just need to tell Plato the type of device (TV, VCR, etc) and the manufacturer, and Plato will give you a list of setup codes, one (or more) of which will work for your device. Plato can search through the list, trying each one until you tell Plato the device responded to the IR command. You can even trigger this searching via X-10 commands, which makes it easy to setup devices on the other side of your home!
HouseLinc has 5 IR output ports which you can use to divide your home into IR zones. The IR LEDs on the front of the HouseLinc are one zone, and the four 1/8 inch jacks on the rear of the HouseLinc provide access to the other 4 zones.
I set up the HouseLinc to control my TV in just a few minutes using the wizard (very impressive). As with X-10 devices, simply drag and drop from the “IR Devices” window to your blueprint. Double click the TV icon to open this controller window which gives you full control of the device.
The database of devices seems quite complete however I was unable to find my TEAC home theater receiver and there is no way to train the system. This is a bit frustrating but Joe Dada of Smartlinc assures me that a new chip is on the way which will contain my unit codes. (Note: An expansion port for the PLATO Learning IR module is expected late in ’97). If you can find the manufacturer in the database however, the system allows you to test and search for the correct IR code. I also found it a bit odd that the “Remote Control Pad” as shown above is used for all devices whether or not the buttons are relevant. For example a CD player can be chosen as the device to control but the control pad does not really have CD control buttons on it as you can see above.
Scenes and Command Groups
Now that all of our X-10 and IR devices are defined, we want to make them perform together on demand. PlatoTW refers to this as setting up “Scenes and Command Groups”. Command Groups are basically Macros. You define a group of commands, give it a name and activate it from your programmed “Scenes” or with direct X10 commands. The window shown below is used to set up these “Command Groups”.
Steps are added to the Macro using simple point and click screens. The example above shows the commands being entered to turn on the TV to channel 12 when the “Evening Mode” command group is executed. A similar screen walks you through adding an X10 command to the list. Command groups can also be nested (ie Evening Mode can activate the Arm Security System group). You can add “Qualifiers” to each command as well. For example, the screen below shows us adding a qualifier that the LivingRm Corner Light will only respond if it’s Winter Time.
In this way, the macros can be as complex as our imagination allows. Other qualifiers include:
* The state of an X10 device.
* A time range.
* A time delay.
A HouseLinc “Scene” is a collection of home control commands that work together to match what’s happening in your home. For example, your Wake Up scene might slowly brighten some bedroom lights, switch on a bed-side radio, and start your kitchen coffee pot. Scenes can (and should) be built using Command Groups but cannot be built using other Scenes. The same tools are used to create a scene as those used for Command Groups.
Each scene can be depicted by an icon on your Main Blueprint window and is activated by double clicking the icon. Using Command Groups and Scenes allows sophisticated control of multiple devices.
Events and Triggers
Now that we’ve devised some complex scenes, it’s time to set up the “Events” or triggers that make them happen. Plato defines 2 types of events namely “Timer Events” and “Input Events”. Timer events allow you to schedule one or more home control tasks to happen at a particular time of day. Input events allow you to define what should happen when a particular input, such as X10 activity, is received by the HouseLinc. Events are programmed in Plato’s Event Editor.
The process is similar to defining Scenes and Groups in that the desired actions (which can include scenes, command groups, X10 or IR commands etc.) are listed in the order in which they are to occur. Qualifiers can be attached as well. The triggers include Time of Day (as shown above), sunrise, sunset, power restore etc. for “Timer Events” or X10 signals such as ON, OFF, DIM, BRIGHT etc. for “Input Events”. In the example above, every day at 10:00 PM the “Bedtime” scene is activated.
Once the Events, Groups and Scenes are downloaded to the HouseLinc, the system is a stand alone controller and will carry out it’s instructions without the PC running.
Plato allows you to print out lists of your X-10 and IR devices but not your Groups, Scenes and Events. The Monitor window allows you to monitor the commands sent by and received from the HouseLinc, either direct commands (via Plato or keys), or stored events. The monitor window will display X10 activity generated by Plato/HouseLinc and by any other X10 devices in your home.
In general, I found HouseLinc and PlatoTW very easy to program and operate. The interface is intuitive and flexible. You don’t need to be a programmer to get things up and running the way you want them. The help system is excellent and context sensitive help screens are accessible from most windows. This is a well thought out system that will handle many home systems which utilize only X-10 and IR devices. It lacks IO for hardwired devices however (ie sensors and relays) and does not provide any communication features as do some of the more sophisticated controllers on the market but at a price of $300 it does a good job at what it’s designed for. The folks at SmartLinc have been quick to respond and it appears there is good technical support for this product.
Expected 3rd/4th Qtr ’97 is a RF receive/transmit daughterboard expansion unit. This unit will enable PLATO HouseLincTM to directly receive RF signals from X10 RF remotes and the security sensors. This will enable the HomeLincTM to utilize the low cost X10 motion sensors and door/window sensors to sense occupancy and initiate events in response to it. The expansion socket for this RF daughterboard is included on the HomeLincTM and the upgrade will be a simple user installable plug-in installation.
By the way, if you can’t afford to buy one of these units just enter our contest by sending us a Tip or Trick about Home Automation. SmartLinc have generously donated a HouseLinc as the prize for this issue.