Student common room and living areas were well equipped with AV
equipment, but many of the students were reliant on support staff to change channels etc.
We created a cost effective accessible interface which would enable many of
our students to access TV, DVDs and MP3s independently.
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Step 1: Hardware
We wanted to use ‘off the shelf’ hardware as far as possible to keep costs down. The
advent of the ‘all in one’ PC makes it possible to purchase a touch screen Windows PC at
very low cost. At the start of the project we purchased some Asus EEE PCs for approx
£400 each, and later we purchased some similar MSI machines with slightly bigger
screens for the same price. These machines are based on netbook architecture, so
would not be suitable for processor intensive tasks like video editing. However they are
more than capable of running the sofware needed to create an accessible media centre.
The next issue was to equip these machines with an environmental control unit so that
they could send out infra red codes to control other devices like a Sky+ box. We initially
used a USB backbox supplied by Sensory Software
(http://www.sensorysoftware.com/backbox.html). This did the job just fine, but the box
is not just a GEWA controller – it also has switch inputs and amplified speakers built in
which were not required for this task. The price of this box was greater than the PC
itself, therefore not really satisfying the ‘cost effective’ criteria! After some research we
found a TIRA sender which could be purchased direct from the manufacturer in Canada
for approx £50 each (http://www.home-electro.com/tira2.php). This device is fully
supported in The Grid 2 software – see below. Although much more cost effective, it
should be noted that it also takes much longer to set up initially. Using a GEWA prog
device, the IR codes are stored in the GEWA itself and so it is only necessary to ‘teach’
each buttion from the original remote control once. However, with a TIRA device the IR
codes are stored in the individual Grid 2 buttons and so need to be taught repeatedly
when setting up a grid of this kind.
The PC was mounted on the wall using a VESA mount at wheelchair height, which can tilt
and swivel. Relevant ports and switches (such as Power!) were labelled to make
operation as user friendly as possible.
Step 2: Software
We developed a gridset for The Grid 2 with a home page containing links to music, DVD
and TV pages.
The TV page turns the touchscreen into a giant remote control for the Sky+ box. We
downloaded a set of channel logos which are in PNG format. The advantage of PNG is
that the background is transparent so they look good when overlaid on to any coloured
On the music page we wanted to create a simple interface where one touch of the screen
(or one selection using a switch) would select and play an album. We discovered that
there is no simple way to do this in The Grid 2 currently, so we had to come up with a
creative solution. When the button is pressed to select an album, a series of commands
is run in The Grid:
The folder containing the tracks is opened:
(Run Program C:\\windows\explorer.exe C:\Music\Now 74)
All the tracks are selected, and ‘Play with Windows Media Player’ executed:
Windows Media Player will now be playing the album in the background, so the
final step is to jump to a Grid containing album art and basic controls
For the DVD player we initially designed a grid which replicated most of the functions of
the original DVD remote. However, after asking the Student Council for feedback they
felt that the grid was over complicated and that many of the functions would either not
be used or only used rarely therefore we created a much simpler version. We decided
that we would put a link to the full version if additional functions were requested, but in
the end we found that people were happy with the ‘lite’ version.
On the bottom of each grid are a Home button, and also a button to turn off the
computer. To prevent accidental shutdowns, the Turn Off button jumps to another grid
to confirm that this is really the required action!
Step 3: User Response
The touchscreen media centre in the student common room has proved to be an
extremely popular feature:
“It is good because everybody can use it”
“It is awesome” ollowing the success of the first unit, we have now installed similar systems in several
student living areas. One of these systems also has additional grids for environmental
controls enabling students to independently open and close the windows and blinds using
either the touchscreen or a switch.