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UNIVERSAL REMOTE CONSOLE - PROTOTYPING THE ALTERNATE INTERFACE ACCESS STANDARD

Gottfried Zimmermann Ph.D., Gregg Vanderheiden Ph.D., Al Gilman Sc.D.
Trace R&D Center, Univ. Wisconsin-Madison
5901 Research Park Blvd., Madison, WI, 53719 USA
zimmer@trace.wisc.edu, gv@trace.wisc.edu, asgilman@iamdigex.net

Abstract

The concept of a "Universal Remote Console" (URC) allows people with and without disabilities to remotely control any electronic and information technology device (target device/service), such as VCRs, copy machines, or elevators, from their personal remote control device. A standard for Universal Remote Consoles is required in order to facilitate interaction between the URC and target devices across different manufacturers. This paper introduces the efforts of user groups, industry, government and academia to develop a standard for "Alternate Interface Access" within the V2 technical committee of the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS).

Introduction

People with different types of disabilities find it difficult or impossible to directly use electronic devices, because the built-in user interface cannot accommodate the needs of different user groups (such as users with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments) in their standard user interface (UI). People with disabilities therefore often have to rely on devices that are especially designed for them.

To overcome this problem, the idea of a "universal remote console" has been introduced [1, 2, 3]. In this concept a universal remote controller is used to control a variety of electronic devices at home, in the office, at school, and in public places. Because these electronic devices are manufactured by different companies, a standard is required for allowing a separate device, an alternate "console", to be used to control the target devices/services (standard devices that people encounter in their environments).

In order to define a standard for flexible and replaceable user interfaces for electronic devices and services, NCITS has established a technical committee called V2 [4]. Members of this committee include representatives from user groups, industry, government, and academia. V2 is currently working on a "Universal Remote Console" (URC) specification as an essential part of a to-be-developed "Alternate Interface Access" standard.

The URC approach is simple though powerful: A person carries their own "personal" device which can act as a remote console to other products. This personal device is tailored to their specific needs. It may involve graphical user interfaces, voice interfaces, braille-based interfaces, switch-based input methods, etc., or any combination of these. Typically, the personal remote console would be a mobile device like a PDA, a cell phone, or an inconspicuous wearable computer.

The personal remote console is also a "universal" remote console in that it would let the user control any target device or service, from the thermostat at home to the copy machine in the office, that supported the standard. The target device would simply transmit an abstract (i.e. modality-independent) user interface to the URC which would take care of providing the particular input and output mechanisms that are appropriate for its user.

The URC approach means that it is not the target device manufacturer who is responsible for creating or providing the different user interfaces needed by different types of users. Instead, the device manufacturer need only supply the "interface needs" of their product in the standard format. The user would bring their own interface with them.

The Vision

The following brief scenario may serve as an illustration of what the standard may facilitate:
Clarissa uses a braille note-taker, a device a bit smaller than a hardcover book that has a braille display and keyboard and can be used by those who are blind or deaf-blind. Clarissa enters a building with an ATM, a building directory, and an elevator. As she enters the foyer, the braille note-taker displays a list of available V2 compatible services (ATM, Building Directory, and Elevator).

Clarissa first selects ATM in order to get some cash. After reading the location on her braille display, she approaches the ATM and it prompts her for her pin (on her braille display). She enters the pin using her braille keyboard. Note that she does not have to swipe her credit card because she has authorized her note-taker to store that number for her and send it in encrypted form to the ATM. The ATM sends lists of selections to Clarissa as the different screens are displayed. She selects the menu items "withdraw money", and "from checking account" sequentially on her braille device as well as entering the amount of money she wants.

After taking her money from the ATM she again asks for the list of items around her, accesses the information from the electronic building directory to find the office she needs to visit. She then uses her device to operate the elevator and monitor its progress to her floor.

The Universal Remote Console Specification

V2 is currently working on the definition of an XML-based language to convey an abstract user interface description from the target device/service to the Universal Remote Console (URC). The standard will probably mandate a pure (modality-independent) abstract UI description that can be rendered on any URC device allowing access to all functions of the target device and/or service. The XML-based language defines an array of abstract UI elements (called "abstract interactors") for input and output operations. On the URC an abstract interactor is mapped to a "concrete interactor" available on its platform. For example the abstract interactor "FloatSelection" might be used to represent a volume control. This could be mapped to an on-screen slider bar for someone who could see and to up/down arrow keys or braille keyboard combinations for someone who was blind.

This declarative approach might appear to be restrictive compared to the more imperative model of a UI toolkit as it is used in traditional programming languages. In Java, for example, Swing defines a set of concrete UI elements that can be programmatically extended by subclassing, or by writing code that uses graphical primitives to build new UI elements. The reason for favoring the declarative approach is that it does not inherently assume any platform-specific characteristics on the URC device or the presence of any specific physical or sensory ability. Thus the UI can be rendered on any URC device at present and in the future.

The standard is based on existing communication and network standards such as 802.11, Bluetooth, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), Java/Jini, and Salutation. The use of existing standards and gateways allows for the V2 work to be communication and network technology independent.

Prototypical Implementations

In order to support the work of the V2 technical committee, the Trace Center has developed prototypical implementations for the URC specification under development. The goals of this activity are (a) to explore the usefulness of different existing technologies for implementing the standard, (b) to identify the requirements of a URC specification regarding its underlying network environment, (c) to provide a testbed for the development of an XML-based language specification, and (d) to provide proof-of-concept implementations for the URC specification.

Current prototypes include a Handspring Visor controlling a TV simulation on a computer via Bluetooth and UPnP, and a Compaq iPAQ controlling a TV simulation via 802.11b and Jini.

Conclusions

The V2 standardization effort is an ongoing activity of user groups, industry, government and academia, under the auspices of NCITS. The emerging V2 standard addresses the alternate interface connection needs of people with and without disabilities. The URC specification will enable people using their personal URC devices to control electronic devices and services in their environment.

Acknowledgments

This work was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), US Department of Education under grants H133E980008, and H133E990006. Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not the funding agencies or V2.

References

1. Vanderheiden, G. (1981). Practical Applications of Microcomputers to Aid the Handicapped. Computer, IEEE Computer Society, January.

2. Scott, N. (1991). The Universal Access System. Presentation at the American Voice Input/Output Society Conference, Atlanta, Sep. 1991.

3. Vanderheiden, G. C. (1998). Universal remote console communication

protocol (URCC). Proceedings of the 1998 TIDE Conference, Helsinki, Finland: Stakes.

4. NCITS V2 - Standards Development Committee on Information Technology Access Interfaces. http://www.ncits.org/tc_home/v2htm/V2docs/v201011.htm.


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