February 2011

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A Lesson from Vegas (@CES)
or......Designing for the YTBI

Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
President and GM
Philips Teletrol
BACnet International
Contributing Editor

While many of us were still preparing for the big ASHRAE event in Las Vegas, an even bigger event in Vegas was all over the tech news.  It was the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES to techies).  CES filled acres and acres of show floor with all kinds of interesting devices and service propositions.  Attendance is limited to people in the consumer electronics industry so I don’t suppose many building automation folks spent time there.  And that’s too bad because there were some lessons there for us … or a least one lesson that I know of. 

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The Lesson

I wouldn’t have expected it but Carnegie Mellon University had a booth at CES.  The booth was a showcase for some ongoing innovation projects at the University.  One of the projects was a novel integration of personal medical devices designed to enhance medical care through near-continuous monitoring.  My daughter Julie is one of the students working on the system so I had a chance to get some background on it.  As I understand it, a primary focus of the project in recent times has been user interface and user interaction design.  What I found fascinating was the degree to which user interaction innovation is impeded by the limited integration capabilities of the underlying devices and their associated software applications.  For example, the blood pressure monitor has its own software application with nice graphs and histories, but little provision for accessing the data and integrating the displays with a larger application dealing with multiple monitoring modes.  The same problem exists with the full body scale used in the system.  So I got to thinking, “why is that?”   And it came to me that the manufacturers of the devices have not figured out yet that we are living in a systems world. 

It would be hard to fault the designer of a home blood pressure measuring device for not considering that someone would want to interface it with an automated scale, much less to integrate it into a system that also includes vision, auditory and oxygen level measurement devices.  But that is the kind of thing that happens in today’s connected world.  So, home medical devices (and subsystems) need to be designed to accommodate the “Yet To Be Imagined” (YTBI – pronounced yittbee) solutions.  And in that, there is perhaps a lesson for users and suppliers in the building automation and energy management arena.

The Application

If you read everything written about “intelligent buildings” (assuming it was possible to read it all in one lifetime!) you might conclude that fully integrated building systems is primarily a technology issue.  And there is some truth to that.  But surprisingly, there are still a lot of device and subsystem manufacturers in our industry who simply choose to design their products as stand-alone without considering logical integration points with larger systems.  Instead, they either ignore potential integration opportunities or they include only “least common denominator” integration capabilities.  In essence they maintain a component perspective in a systems world and as a result their products are not very compatible with YTBI solutions.

There was a time when a building automation/energy management device or subsystem could be designed and installed with the idea that it would be largely independent of other devices and systems.  But that time is over.  Even if a building itself remains largely unchanged, the energy and regulatory environment around it will change dramatically. Energy prices are increasingly volatile and the scope of regulatory requirements continues to expand.  In addition, technological progress will continue with enhancements in local energy generation options, sensors, algorithms and information technology.  In the face of all this, building systems will need to support continual optimization, extension and integration.  The truth is that we don’t know exactly what will be required five years from now of systems installed today.  All we know for sure is that there is plenty of YTBI ahead of us so the devices and subsystems that make up building automation and energy management systems must be designed with that in mind.

contemporary In reality, though, the YTBI challenge is not just a supplier issue.  For example, I know one property owner who installed lighting controls and HVAC controls as part of an overall energy management solution.  It would have been easy (technically) to have a single solution that would provide all the required lighting and HVAC functionality along with a common user interface and simple, efficient diagnostic tools.  However, they did not design it that way because their organization has separate managers for lighting and HVAC and each wanted “control” of the solution.  So, they wound up paying for two systems instead of one.  Then they paid for an extensive integration of the two which resulted in a solution that had multiple user interfaces, unnecessary diagnostic complexity and a high risk of stumbling at the first sign of YTBI.  It was painful to watch. 


In our connected world it is foolish to think we can know all the requirements a building automation or energy management system will have to meet over its lifetime.  The energy environment has become too dynamic and our vision is never going to be good enough.  Somewhere (perhaps at Carnegie Mellon) someone (perhaps a grad student) is going to come up with a way to make things better by integrating our devices or systems in ways that would not occur to us today.  To enable and facilitate those future applications (and in fact to survive in our newly dynamic industry) we need to add a new requirement to all of our product specs … going forward they need to be “designed to accommodate the YTBI.”  

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Philips Teletrol, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview@arborcoast.com.


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