CE Pro Europe travelled to the city of Liverpool to meet with the Ultamation team, and upon arrival it found an install company hitting a rich vein of success in several fields.
Ultamation’s headquarters is located in the centre of the cultural and technology centre of the city, with the team making the iC2 building on the Liverpool Science Park its home. The cutting-edge technology that Ultamation works on fits perfectly into their surroundings, with the building located next to Liverpool John Moores University, which is famous for its research and arts programme.
The team is headed up by Oliver Hall, who handles all the programming and is the company’s managing director. He is not alone, however. His partner is Stephen Nevison, who is managing director of his own company, Intuitive Homes. Coincidentally enough, Intuitive Homes does most of the on-site installation work.
The office has a great view over the city taking in the University campus and the Anglican cathedral, with the welsh hills off in the distance, but its not just aesthetics that are the appeal.
Oliver says, “It’s a great place to be here in the ‘knowledge quarter’ of the city. We use the office for programming and working on some other projects we are involved in, and we also pre-configure some of the kit before going to site, but we don’t keep much kit here, most is delivered direct to site or to the Intuitive Homes office.
Stephen adds, “We do like to go to site very prepared however, we try and spend as little time on site as possible, this helps with the bottom line, but of course it’s just way better to have a clear plan and try and stick to it as much as possible.”
Oliver explains, “We do have quite a sophisticated way of working out and planning each project that we do, we can work out costs, plan different types of install within a given framework, whilst also giving ourselves the freedom to make each project as bespoke as the client wants.”
The team can and does sometimes do their own cable runs, but most often the company takes over once this is done, to its own spec of course, and builds the system from there. Structurally, the aim is to be direct as possible with as little between the sources and playback devices as possible. The team is a big Crestron supporter with Oliver achieving Crestron Gold Master Programmer Status.
Oliver’s whole career has been in the technology sector, working right from university for games company Psygnosis famous for producing the Lemmings desktop games series and later in its life the Wipeout series for PlayStation. When Oliver joined, the home gaming sector was about to explode as Sony produced it’s Playstation platform and also purchased Psygnosis to produce a number of the launch titles, and eventually transform into what is now Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.
“It was a great ride to be around during that time” says Oliver, “I was there right at the start and it was really exciting seeing that concept grow and develop. I ended up moving to London for seven years, however after a time I knew I wanted to return to my roots in Liverpool and build something of my own.
“I started mucking around with building my own home automation platform, however, after a visit to one of the CEDIA shows in London, I realised there was no point in me trying to re-invent the wheel and this is where my relationship with Crestron began. I did look at AMX too, which I though was a good system as well, but the decision in the end was based on the people, it just clicked for me and its been a great relationship. Howard Algar is still our rep and has been a great partner to us.”
The relationship between Stephen and Oliver began with a project that has gone a little ‘south’ and both were asked to assist.
Oliver recounts, “I arrived on site to find loads of un-opened boxes. I thought to myself, I am the programmer! This is going to be a challenge. However, Stephen was brought in by Crestron and we got the job done and our relationship built. The client for this project is still a client today, so that’s the best endorsement I can give our fledgling relationship at that time.”
Having studied a mix of engineering subjects at uni, Stephen explains, “I did some work for an engineering consultancy after finishing my degree, but to be honest, it was very boring, lots of calculations and not enough action, so I decided to make a change. I had a passion for AV and so I found out who my local install companies might be and found D & T out of Manchester. I approached the company and they felt I could do a job for them on the project management side of things, then the Crestron programmer left so I moved over to cover that as well. Eventually I wanted a little more control over what I was doing so set up on my own and met Oliver on that first Crestron job. I saw what he could do on the programming side of things and frankly knew I was never going to be as good as him.”
Oliver chimes in, “I thought exactly the same thing, so our skill sets are a really good fit and allows us to concentrate on what we are best at, ultimately delivering a better experience for the client. In the end that is what it’s all about, yes we like to make money, but to see the look on people’s faces when they see a completed project, that is a buzz you can’t get from anything else, we genuinely like making people happy.”
There are a few projects that have raised the profile of the company and perhaps chief amongst these is a project for a car mad client who wanted a ‘Tony Stark’ style man cave to show off his McLaren sports car.
The client already had a Crestron system, but wanted something a little beyond the standard to get maximum enjoyment of this car when he was not actually driving it. The result was a garage with a fully bespoke Crestron interface and also a fully automated turntable to show every angle of the vehicle and make entering and leaving easier too.
Working with world renown manufacturer of commercial automation systems Turck Banner, Oliver and Stephen needed to get the Crestron system talking to the turntable and the sensors controlling it, no mean feat as of course health and safety was a big concern moving a large piece of metal around and of course the client did not want any damage to occur to his pride and joy.
“There are loads of safety aspects to this, like if you go near the car when its moving the system needs to stop or if the car is not in the right place, the turntable won’t activate. However, the coolest thing is probably the custom created interface, it is very ‘Tony Stark’ and the client loves it,” explains Oliver. “The FT’s How To Spend It column got a hold of this one and it created some nice publicity around what we could do. The project also won CEDIA and Crestron Awards in 2016.”
More recently the company has just finished a project at a property called Edge Cottage. Thanks to successful partnerships built with developers the Llama Group and Janey Butler interiors, a theme that is running through a lot of the company’s work currently are existing period properties which have had significant modern, often open plan, extensions to expand the living and playing space the property an offer.
The home now has a full Crestron system, AV in many of the rooms and a media room/home cinema. Some of the brands which have gone into the project are some regulars for the team including Bowers and Wilkins speakers, Anthem amplification and Kaleidescape movie server. The media room enjoys the benefits of an 85in Sony TV, another regular for the team and a Triad sound-bar takes care of the front three channels of audio in a 5.1 set up.
Crestron gives Oliver the framework he needs to create the backbone of the systems, using mostly C# as the base, with SIMPL Windows introduced over the top to add the more bespoke touches. Using this method allows the company to develop templates it can go back to, but always retaining the opportunity to go the extra mile too. With the Edge Cottage project, the extension had lots of speakers and needed to be precisely controlled into different zones, the control framework Oliver created for that, may well get used again.
This project also uses Crestron Sonnex as part of the music solution, a platform that the team feels perhaps does not get its due enough of the time, not the cheapest option, but the boys are fans of the quality and reliability delivered. Talking directly as it does to the Crestron DM platform also provides lots of visibility for set up and any tweaking or trouble shooting.
Products which the company uses, that potentially at least could cause trouble includes Sky Q. The team like the interface however, as is always the case with installers and Sky, the delivery method is where the love affair ends.
Stephen comments, “We just feed it through the Crestron DM platform. Ironically this completely ignores what Sky feels is one of the main features of the new platform namely its wireless connectivity, but of course we need the reach and reliability, so it’s just better this way.”
The relationship between the two install companies and the developer has blossomed to the point where a show home has been created in a property owned by the developer, which shows off the respective skills sets of all involved from automation to AV and home cinema. Located at Capesthorn Hall stately home, the showroom is located in some attractive outbuildings to rear of this beautiful example of British architecture. The building is a venue for wedding and other events and offers a really strong platform for both companies to flex their muscles.
Oliver argues, “With some concepts, it’s really hard to get people to see the value on paper, show it to them in the flesh and it’s a different story. Take TV reveals for example, we work closely with Future Automation on these and we have two in the show home. What can be a difficult sell, turns into an ‘I want that in my house’ moment, it’s so cool when you see what it can add to a room, design and AV wise.”
A current project includes just such an example with the client opting for two TV reveals one with panels which match the nearby kitchen and another one which has a large piece of art work which divides into two to reveal the TV.
Stephen explains, “Future Automation were great on this, they really helped us deliver something impressive. The mechanism has to be so precise and its spot on.”
Another current project is a full dedicated home cinema in Shropshire, an area the company would love to do more of as the team feel that the technology in that sector is particularly strong at the moment.
Oliver says, “We do like the Kaleidescape system especially the Premier version. It’s not easy we know, but it could be improved if the European store had the same number of movies as the US version and if somehow, a close to release deal could be struck, well that would really put home cinemas on a different level.”
The future, built it and they will come
Clearly in buoyant mood, the company has been on a bit of an expansion drive taking on two new staff since the beginning of the year, and with Stephen also thinking about acquiring a little more space at his HQ to provide more space for rack building and configuring.
However, there is a key area that the company also wants to expand upon.
Oliver takes up the story, “A part of the company that we don’t shout about enough is our driver store. We started with mostly Crestron stuff writing modules for other products, Apple TV and so forth, but we also produce tools to help other Crestron programmers such as our Theme Creator pack. We also have a product called SIMPLified Light which is a tool to help with programming large systems and assist in getting important information out of Crestron SIMPL programs. We are rewriting that at the moment and I think it will do really well. We have other ideas for modules and we are definitely going to be pushing this side of what we do more.”
Oliver continues, “One project we are really excited about is adding some augmented reality to user interfaces. The idea is that the user holds up their smart device and the device recognises the object it is looking at, say a TV, and on screen around a live picture of the device up pops the controls. The App for this will be able to work with any control platform, so we are hopeful it will be a success.”
This does look very cool in demo and is the first time CE Pro has seen AR really work in a consumer AV environment outside gaming to any convincing level. The concept has already won ‘Most Unique Application (Residential)’ at the 2018 Crestron Integration Awards.
Towards the end of the interview Stephen’s phone begins to sing as a client has some questions over control of their TV, well in fact it turns out, someone who is house sitting for the client, either way it’s time to let the team get back to what they do best, and leave them to build the next stage of this go ahead team-up.