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CES 2019: Atmos launches touch panel to unify control of the smart home

The AtmosControl hub looks like a well-designed tablet that mounts on your wall, but it lets you control lights, temperature, music and more from almost every brand.

Atmos

For all of the new conveniences and capabilities that smart home products provide, one of the biggest annoyances is having to juggle a ton of different apps and constantly pull out your phone to control all of them. And while voice commands from Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple Siri are trying to fix some of that, they're often imperfect and frustrating in their own ways.

One company that's offering a clever alternative to apps and voice control is Atmos -- not to be confused with Dolby Atmos. On Jan. 9 at CES 2019, Atmos officially launched its AtmosControl touch panel that's aimed at giving people quick access to their most-used smart home products through a 7-inch, wall-mounted tablet-like device.

The AtmosControl "smart home hub" acts a bit like a universal remote, but with a simplified iPhone-like user interface. It hides the apps themselves and instead uses simple icons for lights, temperature, locks, security cameras and music. There's also a "more" button. When you tap into each area, you can adjust settings with touch-based controls based on their functions. The areas even group together products from different vendors. There are sliders to adjust the lights, virtual buttons for the locks and playlists for music, for example.

The product is now available for preorder on atmoshome.com for $299. The company is offering a CES discount of $30 off using the code "CES2019" through Jan. 31. It comes in two colors, Steel Grey or Onyx Black. AtmosControl will begin shipping preorders in Q2 of 2019 with a retail rollout after that.

"If you've purchased a few smart devices such as smart lights, smart thermostats, smart locks or any of these other smart devices, you have do download a separate app for each one," Atmos founder and CTO Mark Lyle told CNET. "So your smart lights might now take more time to turn on than they did before you got smart lights. That's the problem we're here to solve."

ZDNet: Watch CTO Mark Lyle give a demo of AtmosControl at CES 2019

Atmos pulls off this almost-universal connectivity by doing two things. First, it supports all the most common connectivity protocols -- Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave and Infrared. Second, it makes use of public APIs and developer kits for smart home products. In some cases, it has worked with smart home vendors to build deeper and smoother integrations. Out of the box, AtmosControl works with:

"Frankly, it's surprising to me that nobody's tried to solve it on the level that we have by now, because the tools are already there," Lyle told ZDNet, which broke the news on the startup last year before the product's launch.

Leviton has tried something similar with the OmniTouch 7 Touchscreen, but it doesn't have an user interface that's nearly as polished as AtmosControl and hasn't been well received. In the past, CNET and others have suggested that you could always mount a tablet on your wall to control your smart home gear, but you'd still have to deal with all the individual apps with different controls and functions. The most similar product to AtmosControl is probably the Brilliant Switch, a $300 smart light switch that uses a touch interface to control other smart devices and integrates with Alexa, Google Home and Siri. But it's not quite as comprehensive as Atmos in terms of the devices it can control.

While AtmosControl integrates a lot of different products, the Atmos team has especially focused on improving the in-home user interface for two things: lighting and music.

For lighting, once you group your lights into different rooms then you can name them like you do on other systems. With AtmosControl, anywhere you put one the panels, you can walk into a room and say "Hey Atmos, turn on lights" and it will automatically detect what room you're in and turn the lights on. On other systems, you have to say the name of the room -- that's where the system sometimes breaks down since you're adding more words and more complexity to the voice command. But it should be noted that Google Home is trying to do a similar trick to simplify commands for lights.

atmos-lights
Atmos

The Atmos team was originally going to build its own smart home speaker, but instead decided to control Sonos, Bose, Denon and others.

"We've very deeply integrated with Sonos and Spotify and some of the other streaming music services so that you have a visual interface to control the music throughout your home," said Lyle.

He added that Atmos has seen enthusiasm from Sonos customers who want to use the AtmosControl solely as a touchscreen interface for playing music on their Sonos.

atmos-music
Atmos

The Atmos team has also done a few custom integrations that perhaps show some of the broader long-term potential of the product. For example, they have done an integration with a high-end Bosch connected coffee machine that allows you to start brewing a cappuccino or an espresso from the AtmosControl.

Other smart home product integrations include doorbells, window treatments, ceiling fans, TVs and appliances. The one big thing the AtmosControl does not work with is security systems. Since that would add a lot of complexity, Lyle admitted it has been purposefully left out of the product for now but said it's on the long-term roadmap.

The AtmosControl hardware itself has a clean look with a machined aluminum chassis. It's made to have a familiar aesthetic similar to a Nest thermostat, which of course has a similar look to a traditional iPhone or iPad. The AtmosControl has the following specs:

  • Quad-core processor
  • 1 GB RAM
  • HD IPS capacitive touch display
  • Far-field microphone array
  • Front intercom camera
  • Proximity sensor
  • Ambient light sensor

All about the software

"As far as mounting is concerned," said Lyle, "the product installs flush to the wall with a cable that then routes through the wall down to your power outlet and then pops out of the wall there and plugs into your power adapter." This could be tricky, time consuming and intimidating for some consumers and might require help from an electrician.

While the hardware is solid enough, it's the user interface that makes AtmosControl. It simplifies a lot of the complex stuff going on in the background. The look and feel of the UI is generally pleasing, with beautiful nature images for backgrounds and flat, simple design elements. The home screen looks especially nice, with the time, date and weather always showing on the right and a customizable widget on the left. Atmos uses the thermostat widget on the left by default in all of its promos and demos, but the security camera and music widgets look nice as well.

The Atmos team has also played up the product's voice capabilities and gesture controls. But besides the one scenario where Atmos senses which room you're in and turns on the lights, it will have a tough time keeping up with Alexa and Google Home for voice. And while gestures might come in handy for a few scenarios, they also feel gimmicky and could be destined to frustrate people. The heart of this product is its ability to bypass the sometimes frustrating nature of using your voice to control your smart home, and instead offering a couple reliable taps on a touchscreen as an alternative.

AtmosControl debuted at CES 2019 in the Eureka Park pavilion, which is the home for startups at CES. It's the place where companies in small booths the size of lemonade stands are pitching products, some of which are destined to disrupt the big vendors in multimillion dollar booths in the main pavilions. Startup Biospectal showed off its blood pressure monitor, for example, which uses an app and a phone camera to replace the 100 year-old blood pressure cuff. Meanwhile, big vendors in fancy booths a floor above peddled digital blood pressure cuffs, not knowing how dated their products looked in comparison. If AtmosControl can deliver what it's promising, then it could have a similarly positive effect on the smart home -- which, today, is being held back by rampant fragmentation and competing ecosystems.

The promise of AtmosControl is that "you've got one device that controls all the other smart devices in your home," said Lyle.

The demo version at CES is impressive, but obviously we haven't gotten it into our labs to test yet. We'll do that in the months ahead and report on how well AtmosControl lives up to its mission.

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