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Universal Remote Console Standards Adopted by ANSI

A group of five new information technology standards, adopted this summer by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), are based in part on the Trace Center's work on universal remote consoles. The standards were developed by the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) V2 Technical Committee, of which the Trace Center was a founding member.

The five approved standards are: Protocol to Facilitate Operation of Information and Electronic Products through Remote and Alternative Interfaces and Intelligent Agents: Universal Remote Console (ANSI INCITS 389-2005), User Interface Socket Description (ANSI INCITS 390-2005), Presentation Templates (ANSI INCITS 391-2005), Target Description (ANSI INCITS 392-2005), and Resource Description (ANSI INCITS 393-2005).

When these voluntary technical standards are adopted, it will be possible to use a "universal remote console" device to control light switches, thermostats, and complex devices such as TVs and VCRs. A variety of common devices (e.g., cell phones, laptop computers, handheld organizers) and assistive technologies could function as universal remote consoles (URCs) if they implement these standards. The user interface provided by the URC will be extremely flexible and easy to use, allowing users to choose what works best for them.

Gregg Vanderheiden, Trace Center Director and Vice-Chair of the V2 Technical Committee, points out: "We are living in a world full of invisible computers in devices such as alarm clocks, microwave ovens, copy machines, ticket machines, and so on. And these devices are becoming increasingly complex, which makes them harder for users to operate. The URC standards are designed to make our environment more usable by de-coupling the user interfaces from the devices and their inherent complexities."

The new standards provide a way for products to disclose information about their functions and controls to the URC. The URC is then easily configured by the user to display only the functions they want in the manner they prefer and are more familiar with. This solves the problem of the user having to learn (and remember) different control systems for different brands or types of devices.

Users can choose to use their cell phone, computer, and/or handheld organizer as a URC. People with disabilities could use their assistive technology devices in the same way, or new devices could be specially built to function as universal remote consoles.

One of the most exciting aspects of these new standards is their potential to enable the use of intelligent agents and natural language to control products. They provide for "virtual interface sockets" on products so that they can be controlled from other programmed or intelligent devices. The ability to talk naturally to a PDA or cell phone and have it control all of the products in one's environment may now be possible with the adoption and implementation of these standards.

Gottfried Zimmermann, Trace Center project leader and International Representative of the V2 Technical Committee, states: "With the adoption of these standards, we are one step closer to the day when we will be able to choose the interface we use to control the devices that surround us each day. Some people can use complex visual interfaces, while others may choose simpler interfaces for controlling the same products. Some of us will simply tell our hand-held agent in simple language what we want to have done. This will be a tremendous boon for technophobes as well as all of us as we age."

Vanderheiden explains: "The URC standards are pragmatic and forward-looking. They can make the development of user interfaces easier today and will facilitate the migration to future interaction mechanisms such as natural language. However, we need to convince industry that these standards will add value to their products. It is like building a big house -- the building is done, but we need to go out and invite people to live in this house."

As part of its ongoing development work on Universal Remote Console implementation, the Trace Center has just released a web-based simulation to help potential implementers gain a better understanding of the new standards. The URC Simulation Environment runs as a set of Java applets in any web browser (Internet Explorer or Mozilla with Java Plugin 5.0 or later). The user can launch a simulated TV, an alarm clock or a VCR, and control them through a graphical URC. The communication between the URC and the simulated appliances is based on the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) device architecture, which allows for launching them on different computers in a network.

The underlying code of this tool will be made publicly available later this year. It will be bundled as Trace's "URC Software Development Kit," which will also include support for UPnP's AV specifications.

About the Trace Center: Founded over 30 years ago at the UW-Madison by a group of engineering students, the Trace Center is part of the College of Engineering, affiliated with both the Biomedical Engineering and the Industrial and Systems Engineering departments. Funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the National Science Foundation, Trace is the leading center for research in the area of accessibility of standard information and telecommunications technologies.

CONTACT: Kate Vanderheiden (608-265-4621)

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