Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pimp your ride with augmented reality — Part II

Last week, I introduced you to some cool examples of augmented reality, or AR, and stated that AR can help drivers deal with the burgeoning amount of information in the car.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at some use-cases for both drivers and passengers. Remember, though, that these examples are just a taste — the possibilities for integrating AR into the car are virtually endless.

AR for the driver
When it comes to drivers, AR will focus on providing information while reducing distraction. Already, some vehicles use AR to overlay the vehicle trajectory onto a backup camera display, allowing the driver to gauge where the car is headed. Some luxury cars go one step further and overlay lane markings or hazards in the vehicle display.

Expect even more functionality in the future. In the case of a backup camera, the display might take advantage of 3D technology, allowing you to see, for example, that a skateboard is closer than the post you are backing towards. And then there is GM's prototype heads-up system, which, in dark or foggy conditions, can project lane edges onto the windshield or highlight people crossing the road up ahead:

AR can be extremely powerful while keeping distraction to a minimum. Take destination search, for example. You could issue the verbal command, “Take me to a Starbucks on my route. I want to see their cool AR cups”. The nav system could then overlay a subtle route guidance over the road with a small Starbucks logo that gets bigger as you approach your destination. The logo could then hover over the building when you arrive.

You'll no longer have to wonder if your destination is on the right or left, or if your nav system is correct when it says, “You have arrived at your destination.” The answer will be right in front of you.

AR for the passenger
So what about the passenger? Well, you could easily apply AR to side windows and allow passengers to learn more about the world around them, a la Wikitude. Take, for example, this recent video from Toyota, which represents one of the best examples of how AR could make long road trips less tedious and more enjoyable:


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

QNX-based nav system helps Ford SUVs stay on course down under

Paul Leroux
This just in: SWSA, a leading electronics supplier to the Australian automotive industry, and NNG, the developer of the award-winning iGO navigation software, have created a QNX-based navigation system for Ford Australia. The new system has been deployed in Ford Territory SUVs since June of this year.

To reduce driver distraction, the system offers a simplified user interface and feature set. And, to provide accurate route guidance, the system uses data from an internal gyroscope and an external traffic message channel, as well as standard GPS signals. Taking the conditions of local roads into account, the software provides a variety of alerts and speed-camera warnings; it also offers route guidance in Australian English.

The navigation system is based on the iGO My way Engine, which runs in millions of navigation devices worldwide. To read NNG's press release, click here.

SWSA's new nav system for the Ford Territory is based on the Freescale
i.MX31L processor, QNX Neutrino RTOS, and iGO My way Engine.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

QNX-powered OnStar FMV drives home with CES Innovation award

Paul Leroux
This just in: The OnStar FMV aftermarket mirror, which brings the safety and security features of OnStar to non-GM vehicles, has won a coveted CES Innovations Design and Engineering Award.

To clinch this award, a product must impress an independent panel of industrial designers, engineers, and trade journalists. Speaking of impressions, it seems that OnStar FMV also made a hit with the folks at CNET, because they've chosen it as one of their Top Holiday Shopping Picks for 2011.

As you may have guessed, OnStar FMV uses QNX Neutrino as its OS platform. It also uses the QNX acoustic processing suite, which filters out noise and echo to make hands-free conversations clear and easy to follow. The suite includes cool features like bandwidth extension, which extends the narrow-band hands-free signal frequency range to deliver speech that is warm and natural, as well as intelligible.

Have time for a video? If so, here's a fun look at FMV's features, including stolen vehicle recovery, automatic crash response, turn-by-turn navigation, hands-free calling, and one-touch emergency calling:


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Listen to the music

The audio CD is on its last track... Internet radio, anyone?

I don’t think anyone will disagree with me when I say that music still represents the most important element in an infotainment system. Just look at the sound system capabilities in new cars. Base systems today have at least 6 speakers, while systems from luxury brands like Audi and BMW boast up to 16 speakers and almost 1000 watts of amplification.

For nearly as long as I can remember, cars have come with CD players. For many years they’ve provided a simple way to take your music on the road. But nothing lasts forever.

Earlier this year, Ford announced it would discontinue CD players in many of its vehicle models. Some industry pundits have predicted that CD players will have no place in cars in model year 2015 and beyond. A few weeks ago, Side-Line Music Magazine reported that major labels plan to abandon the CD format as early as 2012. This revelation has created a flurry of activity on the Net, but the labels have yet to confirm it’s true.

Steady decline
The fact is, CD sales have declined steadily for the last several years, down 16 percent in 2010 alone. Digital downloads (the legal kind), on the other hand, have been growing quickly and are expected to exceed CD sales for the first time in 2012.

Where does that leave us in the car? Obviously, media device integration will be key in the coming years. QNX Software Systems has long supported Apple iPod integration and supported Microsoft’s ill-fated Zune for a while. USB connectivity is a given, and soon you’ll be able to stream music from your phone.

Radio redefined
The QNX-powered Toyota Entune system 
supports both Pandora and iHeartRadio.
But what’s more exciting is how radio is evolving in the vehicle. Along with the steering wheel, radio has been a staple of car pretty much since day one. As the connected vehicle moves to the mainstream, internet radio will become a huge part of the automotive experience.

Companies like Slacker extend the concept of radio beyond audio to include artist bios, album art, photos, reviews, and more. Pandora, through its work with the Music Genome Project, expands the musical experience by playing songs it predicts you will appreciate. iHeartRadio aggregates American radio stations for replay throughout the US. TuneIn takes it one further with a global view. Driving down highway 101 in California, you’ll be able to tune in all your favorites from around the world.

Beyond entertainment
These services are changing the way people consume music. Today, I rely on my car radio not only to entertain but also to educate by constantly exposing me to new artists and content. Internet radio in the car will expand my horizons even further. And as online music stores like 7Digital integrate their service with the internet radio stations, I’ll be able to download the song I just heard at the push of a button. Not good for CD sales, but it seems that’s the way of the future anyway.

We are, of course, working with the leaders in internet radio and online music services to bring them to a car near you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pimp your ride with augmented reality — Part I

The use of electronics is exploding in automotive. Just last week, Intel proclaimed that the connected car “is the third-fastest growing technological device, following smartphones and tablets.”

Ten years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a 32-bit processor in your car. Now, some cars have 4 or more 32 bitters: one in the radio, another in the telematics module, yet another in the center display, and still another in the rear-seat system.

Heck, in newer cars, you’ll even find one in the digital instrument cluster — the QNX-powered cluster in the Range Rover, for example. Expect to see a similar demand for more compute power in engine control units, drive-by-wire systems, and heads-up displays.

The Range Rover cluster displays virtual speedometers and gauges, as well as warnings, suspension settings, and other info, all on a dynamically configurable display.

What do most of these systems have in common? The need to process tons of information, from both inside and outside of the vehicle, and to present key elements of that data in a safe, contextually relevant, and easy-to-digest fashion.

The next generation of these systems will be built on the following principles:

  • Fully integrated cockpits — Vehicle manufacturers see system consolidation as a way to cut costs and reduce complexity, as well as to share information between vehicle systems. For instance, your heads-up display could discreetly let you know who is calling you, without forcing you to take your eyes off of the road. And it could do this even if the smarts integrating your phone and your car reside in another cockpit component — the telematics module, say.
  • Augmented reality — With all of the data being generated from phones, cloud content services and, perhaps more importantly, the vehicle itself, presenting the right information at the right time in a safe way will become a major challenge. This is where augmented reality comes in.

Augmented reality is a cool use of cameras, GPS, and data to create smart applications that overlay a virtual world on top of the real world. Here are some of my favorite examples:

AR Starbucks cups — Use your phone to make your coffee cup come alive:

AR Starwars — Blast the rebel alliance squirrels!

AR postage stamp — Add a new dimension (literally) to an everyday object:

And here are a couple more for good measure:

AR ray gun — Blast aliens around the house!

Wikitude AR web browser — Explore the world around you while overlaying social networks, images, video, reviews, statistics, etc.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will explore how AR could enhance the driving experience for both drivers and passengers — Andrew.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I've always wondered about Android support...

My colleague Jeff Schaffer sent me this link, which gives an interesting analysis of Android support on various devices.

Clearly, it's pretty tough to stay on top of the Android release game. One very good reason for car makers to be wary, as they'll be bound to move even slower than handset makers.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The need for green in automotive

The need for environmentally friendly practices and products has become so painfully obvious in recent years that it’s no longer possible to call it a debate or a controversy. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the automotive industry.

Working at QNX has given me insight into just how complex the problem is and how going green in automotive is not going to be a revolution. I've come to realize that it will require a good number of players on a large number of fronts.

An example of what happens when
your car takes way too long to boot. :-)
What we at QNX are doing to move the cause forward is called fast booting. Some operating systems take up to 60 seconds to boot. Can you imagine getting in your car, turning the ignition, and waiting a minute for your radio to work? Me either.

To prevent such undignified delays, these systems typically do not power down completely. Instead, they suspend to RAM while the vehicle is off. This lets the system boot ‘instantly’ whenever the ignition turns over. But because there’s a small current draw to keep RAM alive, this trickle continually drains the battery. This might have minimal consequences today (other than cost to the manufacturer, which is a whole other story) but in the brave new world of electric and hybrid cars, battery capacity equals mileage. Typical systems thus shorten the range of green vehicles and, in the case of hybrids, force drivers to use not-so-green systems more often. More importantly perhaps, these systems give would-be buyers ‘range anxiety’. Indeed, according to the Green Market’s Richard Matthews, battery life is one of the top reasons the current adoption rate is so low.

A little-known feature of QNX technology helps solve this problem.

Architects using the QNX OS can organize the boot process to bring up complex systems in a matter of seconds. Ours is not an all-or-nothing proposition as it is with monolithic operating systems that must load an entire system before anything can run – Windows and Linux are prime examples. QNX supports a gradual phasing in of system functionality to get critical systems up and running while it loads less-essential features in the background. A QNX-based system can start from a cold boot every time. Which means no battery drain while the car is off.

And while this is no giant leap for mankind it is certainly a solid step in the right direction. If the rest of us (consumers, that is) contributed similarly by trading in our clunkers for greener wheels, the industry could undoubtedly move forward in leaps and bounds. I suppose this means I’m going to have to take a long hard look at my 2003 Honda Civic.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Can HTML5 keep car infotainment on track?

Paul Leroux
True story: When a train on the Trans-Mongolian Railway crosses from Mongolia into China, it must stop and have all of its wheel assemblies replaced. Why? Because the track gauge (distance between the rails) is 1520 mm in Mongolia and 1435 mm in China. Oops!

The rail industry realized long ago that, unless it settled on a standard, costly scenarios like this would repeat themselves ad infinitum. As a result, some 60% of railways worldwide, including those in China, now use standard gauge, ensuring greater interoperability and efficiency.

The in-car infotainment market should take note. It has yet to embrace a standard that would allow in-car systems to interoperate seamlessly with smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Nor has it embraced a standard environment for creating in-car apps and user interfaces.

Of course, there are existing solutions for addressing these issues. But that's the problem: multiple solutions, and no accepted standard. And without one, how will cars and mobile devices ever leverage one another out of the box, without a lot of workarounds? And how will automakers ever tap into a (really) large developer community?

No standard means more market fragmentation — and more fragmentation means less efficiency, less interoperability, and less progress overall. Who wants that?

Is HTML5, which is already transforming app development in the desktop, server, and mobile worlds, the standard the car infotainment industry needs? That is one of the questions my colleague, Andy Gryc, will address in his seminar, HTML5 for automotive infotainment: What, why, and how?. The webinar happens tomorrow, November 15. I invite you to check it out.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


After working more than 20 years in high tech, I've settled on a mantra: This too shall pass. (Hey, I didn’t say it was original!) To that end, patience is critical, as is flexibility. And ultimately, success depends less on predicting technology trends and more on responding to them. You've got to be tech-nimble, which requires not only the willingness to change, but the technology to accommodate — and profit from — that change.

Yesterday, Adobe announced a restructuring based on a change in direction, from mobile Flash to HTML5. Some might consider this development as proof that Adobe lost the battle to Steve Jobs. But to my mind, they've simply recognized a trend and responded decisively. Adobe has built a product portfolio based heavily on tooling, including tools for HTML5 development. So they definitely fall into the tech-nimble category.

QNX has an even greater responsibility to remain tech-nimble because so many OEMs use our technology as a platform for their products. Our technology decisions have an impact that ripples throughout companies building in-car infotainment units, patient monitoring systems, industrial terminals, and a host of other devices.

So back to the Flash versus HTML 5 debate. QNX is in a great position because our universal application platform approach enables us to support new technologies quickly, with minimal integration effort. This flexibility derives in part from our underlying architecture, which allows OS services to be cleanly separated from the applications that access them.

Today, our platform supports apps based on technologies such as Flash, HTML5, Qt, native C/C++, and OpenGL ES. More to the point, it allows our customers to seamlessly blend apps from multiple environments into a single, unified user experience.

Now that’s tech-nimble.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Adobe’s out of mobile? Read the fine print

The blogosphere is a-buzz with Adobe’s apparent decision to abandon Flash in mobile devices. I get the impression, though, that many people haven’t bothered to read Adobe’s announcement. If they did, they would come away with a very different conclusion.

Let me quote what Adobe actually said (emphasis mine):

    "Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores. We will no longer adapt Flash Player for mobile devices to new browser, OS version or device configurations. Some of our source code licensees may opt to continue working on and releasing their own implementations. We will continue to support the current Android and PlayBook configurations with critical bug fixes and security updates."

What’s being discontinued is the Flash plug-in for mobile browsers. Adobe will still support and work on Mobile AIR, and on the development of standalone mobile applications.

A number of cross-platform applications today are implemented in Adobe AIR, and that’s staying the same. Adobe is being smart — they’re picking and choosing their battles, and have decided to give this one to HTML5. We’re big believers in HTML5, and Adobe's announcement makes complete sense: Don’t bother with the burden of Flash plug-in support when you can do it all in the browser. You can still build killer apps using Adobe AIR.

A cool and innovative speedometer... for 1939

Paul Leroux
Earlier this week, I referred you to a whitepaper written by my colleagues Scott Pennock and Andy Gryc. In the paper, Scott and Andy argue that driver distraction is not, in fact, a problem of distraction, but of situational awareness, or SA. Boost a person's SA, and you improve their ability to drive safely.

But how, exactly, do you improve SA? The paper discusses various techniques, and I couldn't possibly do justice to all of them here. But one approach is to supplement the driver's eyes and ears with indicators and warnings, based on information from sensors, roadside systems, and other vehicles.

Here's an example: A system in your car learns, through cloud-based traffic reports, that the road ahead is slick with ice. It also determines that you are driving much too fast for such conditions. The system immediately kicks into action, perhaps by warning you of the icy conditions or by telling you to ease off the accelerator.

Too bad the engineers who designed the 1939 Plymouth P8 didn't have access to such technology. I'm sure they would have embraced it totally.

You see, they too wanted to warn drivers about excess speed. Unfortunately, the technology of the time limited them to creating a primitive, one-size-fits-all solution — the safety speedometer.

Color coded for safety
From what I've read, these speedometers switch from green to amber to red, depending on the car's speed. I've only seen still photos of these speedometers, but allow me to invoke the magic of PhotoShop and reconstruct how I think they work.

The safety speedometer has a rotating bezel, and embedded in this bezel is a small glass bulb. At speeds from 0 to 30 mph, the bulb glows green:

At speeds from 30 to 50 mph, the bulb turns amber:

And at over 60 mph, the bulb turns red:

Given the limitations of 1939 technology, the Plymouth safety speedometer couldn't take driving conditions or the current speed limit into account. It glowed amber at 30 mph, regardless of whether you were cruising through your neighborhood or poking down the highway. As a result, it was more of a novelty than anything else. In fact, I wonder if people driving the car for the first time would have focused more on watching the colors change than on the road ahead. If so, the speedometer may have actually reduce situational awareness. Oops!

Compare this to a software-based digital speedometer, which could take input from multiple sources, both within and outside the car, to provide feedback that dynamically changes with driving conditions. For instance, a digital speedometer could acquire the current speed limit from a navigation database and, if the car is exceeding that limit, remind the driver that they risk a speeding ticket.

That said, I have a soft spot for anyone who is (or was) ahead of their time. Some enterprising Plymouth engineers in the 30s realized that, with faster speeds, comes the need for even greater situational awareness. Their solution was primitive but it offered a hint of what, more than 75 years later, can finally become reality.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Some people drive me to distraction

Paul Leroux
Hey, have you ever panned your camera? It's really easy: You just track a moving subject with your camera and then squeeze the shutter while both you and the subject are in motion. It's a great technique for creating images that evoke a sense of speed, which makes it popular among photographers for Motor Trend, Car and Driver, and other automotive magazines.

When you pan, you never really know what kind of image you're going to get. Often, the results are interesting. And sometimes, they're downright interesting. Take this shot, for example:

Lattés and overdrive don't mix. Just sayin'.

Now, holding a cellphone while rocketing down the highway is just plain wrong. To anyone who does it, I have one thing to say: "You're endangering other people's lives for the sake of a f***ing phone call. Where the hell do you get off doing that?"

But look at this guy. He's isn't holding a phone, but a coffee — even worse. Just imagine if he gets into a situation that demands quick, evasive action. He will, in all likelihood, hold on to the cup for fear of burning himself. Whereas if he had a phone, he would simply drop it and put his hand back on the wheel.

Mind you, I have no data to prove that coffee cups poses a greater evil than cellphones. But the core issue remains: Cellphone use is just one of many factors that contribute to driver distraction. In fact, research suggests that cellphones account for only 5% of distraction-related accidents that end in injury.

So, even if every cellphone on the planet disappeared tomorrow, we would still have a massive problem on our hands. To that end, my colleagues Scott Pennock and Andy Gryc suggest a new approach to designing vehicle cockpit systems in their paper, "Situational Awareness: a Holistic Approach to the Driver Distraction Problem."

The paper explores how system designers can use the concept of situational awareness to develop a vehicle cockpit that helps the driver become more aware of objects and events on the road, and that adapts in-vehicle user interfaces to manage the driver’s cognitive load.

It's worth a read. And who knows, perhaps someone, someday, will develop a cockpit system that detects if you are sipping something and tells you what you need to hear: "Dammit Jack, put that cup down. It's not worth endangering other people's lives for the sake of a f***ing latté."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Building a hands-free future

The end of my street is governed by a three-way stop. The other morning I was backing out of my driveway when someone rolled past the stop sign and came within inches of hitting me. I stopped, glared at him, and resumed driving. Two stop signs later, the same guy squeezed past my car (in the same lane), completely oblivious to what he was doing.

Why was he driving like this? Probably because he was deeply engrossed in a conversation on his cell phone.

Where I live, using a handset while driving has been illegal for over a year. You cannot talk, you cannot text, you cannot “Facebook”, you cannot Tweet — even if you're stopped at a red light. This makes perfect sense to me. As a driver, your primary responsibility is to control the vehicle. And yet I see people texting on the freeway, talking on their cell phones, and doing who knows what else on an alarmingly regular basis.

The QNX-powered BMW
ConnectedDrive system
Society has become obsessed with mobile devices, and it will take more than legislation to change its behavior. The answer, I think, is to embrace the behavior in a way that makes it possible to interact socially while maintaining control of the car. We’ve seen great progress in hands-free/phone integration, and BMW ConnectedDrive offers an example of how drivers can access email and other smartphone services more safely.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Integrating the handset with the infotainment unit is going to change the way you interact with your car. Intelligently designed apps, combined with multi-modal human machine interfaces, will let you Tweet or update Facebook using speech recognition, keeping your eyes on the road.

Without taking your hands of the wheel, you’ll be able to call a friend and decide that you want to go to dinner, do a local search to find out what’s available, check a restaurant review on Yelp, make a reservation, text your friend back with the time and place, and aim your navigation system at the restaurant. And you’ll be able to do it using natural language. None of this “please say a name” stuff.

Seems futuristic? It’s not. People are working on it today. In fact, QNX-based systems, such as Toyota Entune, already offer a taste of this hands-free and highly personalized future.