New bus eases connections

Sick of the tangled mess of wires on the back of your PC? Starting this year, vendors plan to replace it with a single connection for all external peripherals, including keyboards,mice, printers, scanners and modems.

Like an electrical outlet, the Universal Serial Bus (USB) connector will simplify the process of plugging in peripherals. Because it supports the Plug and Play standard in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95, the new bus will automatically recognize and control peripherals.

Good News for Feds

The new bus will be especially helpful to federal PC users because they often buy minimally equipped machines and then add external peripherals as their budgets allow, said Bob Guerra, executive vice president of Sysorex Information Systems Inc. "They are forced to buy over time," he said. "The government buyer has a greater propensity to have external peripherals."

Because it supports faster connections, the new bus will also make it possible for federal integrators and users to connect PCs with telephone systems and more exotic input devices, such as virtual reality gloves and head-tracking devices.

The USB standard is being developed by Intel Corp., Microsoft and a host of PC makers and telephony firms. The goal is a single input/output port that connects the keyboard, mouse, modem, scanner, PBX connection, printer and joystick. Some peripherals, such as the mouse, would plug in directly to the PC, while others, such as the keyboard, would serve as a hub to which others could connect.

With USB, users can combine computers with their PBX phone systems so they can manage calls from their PCs. The computer can indicate that there is an incoming call and display the phone number of the caller, said Bill Beck, head of Mitel Corp.'s desktop interfaces department. This feature can let workers screen calls while continuing to work on their machines, he said. The USB design supports connections to high-speed Integrated Services Digital Network, PRI, T-1 and E-1 lines.

The USB design moves information at 12 megabit/sec, so modems, T-1 connections and other devices can work at very high speeds. That high speed means USB can send information back to input devices in real time to provide continuous feedback.

Easing Joystick Connections

The new bus will make it easier for integrators and users to connect joysticks—the input device of choice for military simulators and trainers. "Once we have the USB, connectivity will be very straightforward," said Joe Rayhawk, a project engineer for Thrustmaster Inc., which supplies F-16 replica joystick and throttle controls for many simulators.

Today users have to connect joysticks through the keyboard port, which is limiting because it supports only four control axes. This means users can connect only one pair of 2-D joysticks to a PC. Virtual reality gloves, which require 16 axes, are off limits.

"Simulators are crippled by the keyboard connection," said Ralph Smith, an Intel engineer on loan to the USB group. "They have all kinds of compatibility problems and difficulty getting the information in and out."

Integrators are forced to be creative, attaching input devices through serial ports, game cards installed in expansion slots, parallel ports and keyboard ports. "We are constantly plugging and unplugging wires," said Francis Govers, project manager for TASC Inc.'s Portable War Room simulator. "We are constantly running out of serial ports and parallel ports."

Working around the limitations in the bus design of current PCs also introduces reliability problems. "It is a considerable point of failure of systems in the field," Govers said.

The USB can support as many as 127 connected devices, but most machines will have no more than 10, Rayhawk said. "There will be one connector type in PCs," he said. "The operating system will identify each USB device, asking who are you, what can you do, how many axes do you have, how many buttons do you have?"

USB will let integrators build simulators and trainers that have enough joystick inputs for several participants to each have a pair of joysticks and other virtual reality inputs. "When people work together in groups, you want them to train together," Govers said.

Vendors expect the demand for joysticks, gloves, head trackers and other devices to rise as PC users try to navigate 3-D World Wide Web pages, Govers said. "It will drive demand for joysticks," he said. "If you try navigating a virtual reality markup language Web page with a mouse, it is very frustrating. It is going to create a demand for more input devices."

"The human interface to the PC has been very poor," Smith said. "The bandwidth, flexibility and ease of use of USB will promote human interaction tools like gloves and 3-D controllers."

Intel will begin shipping the chips for USB during the first quarter of 1996, and PC vendors plan to add USB support to their systems soon after that.

Initially, vendors will add the USB port to the other connectors on the box, said Joanne Delangie, product marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corp. But as USB becomes more widely used and more peripherals are available to connect to the socket, PC vendors will start phasing out the other connections, she said.

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