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PARC eases communications between devices

The pioneering Palo Alto Research Center develops software designed to let all consumer electronics devices communicate with one another, making networked home devices easier to use.

Researchers at the pioneering PARC labs have developed software that they say allows all consumer electronics devices to communicate with one another, making networked home devices easier to use.

The Palo Alto Research Center, a subsidiary of Xerox, on Tuesday announced Obje, a software architecture meant to establish a common language to tackle one of the biggest hurdles that content and device makers face as they try to make playback of digital media easy on all devices: compatibility.

Industry groups, such as the Digital Home Working Group and the UPnP Forum, have been formed and new standards developed so consumers will be able to more easily use various media, regardless of format on any type of device. Insiders say that when consumers find it easier to use digital media, they will be more likely to purchase devices that can play it back.

It also means instant access to resources on a wired or wireless network, said Hermann Calabria, principal of business development at PARC.

"We're not trying to say you can just play audio and video on one device," Calabria said. "You'll be able to do that on any device (connected to a network) in a room, whenever you want."

Obje essentially allows devices to teach each other how to communicate with one another. Code is sent to the devices over a connection, either a network or a direct connection. Establishing the language is nearly instantaneous but depends on what is being transferred, Calabria said.

The software is meant to be device-, OS- and network-agnostic but does need some sort of virtual machine. So far, PARC researchers have gotten Obje to work on a Hewlett-Packard iPaq device with 32MB of memory. Obje is also compatible with other networking technologies and does not need to be loaded on every device in the network to work.

PARC is focusing on the consumer electronics market where manufacturers have said that ease-of-use and interoperability are essential to customer use. PARC has spoken with several companies about turning the technology into a commercial project but would not disclose names. Deliverable software is not yet available, but the concepts are mature, Calabria said. PARC is looking to license the technology.

PARC researchers also announced a wireless networking technology meant to make it easier to establish secure connections. The technology calls for client devices, such as notebook PCs, to request a key clearing the client to use the network. One example researchers discussed was requiring a notebook owner to have a key transmitted over an infrared connection from a wireless network access point. Once the key is accepted, the notebook could access the wireless network.

The technology, which has not yet been named, addresses one of the major issues of wireless networking, easy implementation of security standards.

"User studies show that one of the biggest problems with security is that people misconfigure settings or they don't bother with it at all because it's too hard," said Dirk Balfanz, a researcher at PARC. "This is a way to enable it easily."

PARC is also looking for licensees for Balfanz's project.