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The Bluetooth universal remote invented by a team of UBC engineering students - photo by Martin Dee
The Bluetooth universal remote invented by a team of UBC engineering students - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 10 | Oct. 6, 2005

Technology Could Transform Urban Landscape for Disabled

By Brian Lin

Navigating the urban jungle could become much easier for people with disabilities thanks to a team of UBC electrical and computer engineering students.

Answering a challenge to “go beyond the boundaries” by the 2005 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society International Design Competition, the five-member team developed a way to allow people with disabilities to control everything from building intercoms, to elevator keypads and crosswalk buttons right from their cell phones.

“We came up with the protocol to turn any Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or hand-held computer into a remote control that adapts itself to the device the user wishes to control,” says Michael Luk, who, with teammates Larix Lee and Kelvin Poon, has since enrolled in graduate studies at UBC.

“While Bluetooth technology has been widely available for a number of years, this is among the first Bluetooth applications that directly benefit the disabled,” says David G. Michelson, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering and the team’s advisor.

“Various firms, including Burnaby-based IMAG RF Technologies, already make Bluetooth access control devices that would work seamlessly with this kind of universal remote control,” says Michelson. “The team’s software is the missing piece of an application that could potentially benefit millions of people.”

Instead of pre-programming the cell phone in order to operate various devices -- much like universal remotes available now for home entertainment systems -- the team’s software enables the cell phone to learn and display the interface and command set of any compatible device.

“For example, if the phone comes into range of a building intercom, it automatically provides a number keypad and asks the user to enter a suite number,” explains Lee.

“If the user approaches a crosswalk, the phone’s interface will change into a single button that represents the crosswalk device.”

What’s more, the interface changes according to the status of the device.

“When using the universal remote with a lamp, for instance, the ‘button’ would be labeled ‘turn lamp on’ when the lamp is off, and vice versa,” says Poon, who was recently reunited with teammates Justin Wong and Derrick Yeung, who are currently attending Stanford and Cornell universities, respectively, at the recent IEEE Telus Innovation Competition in Vancouver.

Michelson is not the only expert who has been impressed by the students’ invention. The team competed at the final rounds of several student competitions and has won the communications award at the UBC IEEE student project fair. Wireless industry leader Nokia has invited the team to publish an article on its web site. The Neil Squire Society, a B.C.-based non-profit organization that promotes the use of technology to help people with disabilities, has provided funding for further research.

Poon says the protocol can be customized to work with any mobile device with any wireless connection, and the cost associated with embedding Bluetooth transmitters in public facilities would be minimal.

“The next step is convincing policy-makers and corporate citizens to use the protocol,” Lee adds. “We really believe this will make a difference in people’s lives.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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