Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Biff! Bap! Ker-Pow! It’s the BatBerry interview!

Paul Leroux interviews Tim Neil, a director of product management at RIM, who is building his very own Batmobile™. This project might sound like fun (and Tim assures us it is), but it also demands a wealth of skills, from welding to HTML5 programming.

Tim Neil
Tim, could you give us a quick overview of the BatBerry project?
The BatBerry combines my love of cars, Batman, and technology. I’ve always wanted to build this car and I’ve had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at creating a carputer. When RIM started creating a 7" tablet, I knew the time was right to bring all of these interests together.

How did you get started on this project?
I started my research about 15 years ago, trying to determine how and where to get started. For instance, I needed to track down the shifter, which is a throttle quadrant from a WWII US Navy bomber.

By 2010, I had finished modifying my custom Subaru WRX, and I needed to get started on something new — working on cars is my way of escaping and relaxing. The time was right, and I got the green light from my wife. Luckily for me, she knew of my desire to build this car when we met and it didn’t scare her away. :-)

The BatBerry, about a year after Tim launched his project
Reading your blog, I’m totally impressed by the scope of the BatBerry project — be it creating dashboard panels, writing control software, or building a retractable license plate. Do you do most of the work yourself?

Yes, I try to do as much of the work myself as possible. I leave important things that I don’t have experience in, like doing the frame stretch, to the professionals. I did the same thing building up my Subaru over the past 7 years: learning how to do body work, interior, stereo, engine modifications, etc. I like to learn things as I go and I’ve always had a knack for figuring out how things work. I always figure, what’s the worst thing that can happen? If screw up, I just have to try again.

To pull this off, you need to be a jack of all trades. I’m sure you had skills to begin with — but did you also have to pick up any along the way?
Welding is one of the biggest skills that I’ve picked up so far. I bought myself a welder, watched a couple of YouTube videos, and got to work. I can tell you, my welds look MUCH better now than my first ones. From all the welders I’ve talked to, it’s a skill that simply takes patience and practice.

Since I was a kid I have always been able to figure things out. When I was 8 years old I was wiring my bedroom up to have a switch on my headboard automatically open the door. The best way that I can describe to people how I see the world is by watching the movie Iron Man. When you see Iron Man’s computer JARVIS take an object and expand it out into a million pieces to show how it works, that’s what I see when I look at something.

Tim's other project a highly modified Subaru WRX
What kind of power plant does the BatBerry use? Have you modded it?
The car currently has a 305 4.3L L99 V8. I haven’t really modified it yet. I will likely go with a re-built version of the same engine so that I can re-use the ECU. I’m not looking to make this car into a high-performance hot rod — that’s where my Subaru comes in. Plus, it’s nice to drive distances not always looking for a gas station that serves 94 octane. :-)

The V8 puts out 200hp, which should be pretty good for the BatBerry, considering it is basically a frame with a 400-pound fiberglass body mounted to it. As long as it sounds nasty I’ll be happy. I have a couple of Flowmaster 40 series mufflers for it.

Anyone who reads this blog knows we are bullish on HTML5. So I was fascinated to hear that the BatBerry project has an HTML5 connection. Could you tell us about it?
As the former development manager for BlackBerry WebWorks at RIM, I wanted to show what could be done with HTML5 technology. I wanted to build an interface on my PlayBook and BlackBerry Smartphone that could control some of the systems of the car.

I also wanted to share as much code as possible between the Smartphone and PlayBook, and using WebWorks and HTML5 allows me to do this. These devices pair with a Bluetooth connection on an Arduino board to control a series of relays that raise and lower the 30-cal machine guns, open and close the canopy, raise and lower the suspension, and perform other functions.

All the source code for the project, including Arduino microcontroller code, is being shared in my BatBerry repo on github.

Sample screen captures of the BatBerry user interface

What has been your greatest challenge? And what are you most proud of, so far?
My biggest challenge has been finding time! I’ve been travelling for work more on weekends and while this winter was pretty mild, it was still a bit hard to head out into a freezing cold garage to put in a couple hours of work during the evenings.

I would say the two things I’m most proud of so far are my welding skills and my dash panels. I really wanted to give back something to others who have been building their own versions of this car. Screen-accurate dash panels were something missing from the community. In general, I really like to share what I’m doing so that others who want to do something similar can see what worked, and what didn’t work, for me.

The Discovery Channel has been tracking the BatBerry project. Do they plan to broadcast anything soon?
Nothing to air at the moment. The next step will be to get updated footage of some of the technology integration points. I’m getting close to being able to show the combination of HTM5, Arduino, and the machine guns to get some new footage. Once we reveal the car, filming will wrap up and go into post-production for airing sometime in the future on Daily Planet.

When you aren’t working on the BatBerry, what do you do?
I spend my spare time hanging out with my family, doing something with cars, or playing with technology. My daughter is a big Star Wars fan so she and I have been having some epic lightsaber battles lately. I’ve done a lot of car shows in the past with my Subaru and I really like meeting up and trading experiences with the car community around Toronto. At RIM, I direct the product management group responsible for developer tools, APIs, and SDKs — our focus is on removing barriers and adding features to make developers successful.

One more question: Which Batman character do you most identify with?
I would say Batman himself. While I’m not on the tipping point of insanity and looking to be a vigilante, I identify with the desire to make a difference. I also relate to the do-it-yourself attitude and the love of cool tech and cars. Plus, I’m just a geek at heart. :-)

To track the progress of the BatBerry project, check out Tim’s blog. You can also follow him on Twitter.

And while you’re at it, visit Tim’s YouTube channel. Here, for example, is a video showing the BatBerry’s replica machine guns:

Neither Tim Neil, his vehicle, nor Research In Motion (BlackBerry) are licensed by, endorsed by, sponsored by or affiliated with DC Comics or the owners of the “Batman” properties.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Everything you wanted to know about HTML5 in the car, Part III

Welcome to the third installment in my Q&A series on HTML5 in the car. In Part II, we looked at web servers, native plug-ins, instrument clusters, and display updates. This week, we turn our attention to tools, touch gestures, UI performance, and vehicle resources.

Are there any HTML5 HMI builder tools available?
Most of the well-known IDEs, including Eclipse, Dreamweaver, and Netbeans, support some flavor of HTML5 in their latest release. Adobe Edge, a new tool now available in preview, also lets you create animated HTML5 content. I suggest you check out the HTML5 Tools site, which publishes up-to-date tool reviews.

Often, automotive customers will ask system designers to make an infotainment system work "like an iPhone,” with the popular gesture controls. Does HTML5 support "inertial" menus and two-finger zoom?
Multi-touch is handled at the app level; here’s an example. Pinch zooming at the browser level is browser-dependent — the QNX browser handles it, but not every browser does. As for physics-based scrolling, HTML5 doesn’t support it “out of the box”; it needs to be added. Frameworks like Sencha Touch provide these types of controls.

Will the performance of HTML and JavaScript be adequate for critical user interface components or computations, such as safety-related notifications?
This has to be tested on a case-by-case basis. For the UI elements, yes, the performance should be adequate. Our testing indicates you can build HMIs that are surprisingly responsive. Also, our WebKit port lets you do things things like run JavaScript code in other tabs, threads, or processes to ensure those ocmponents aren’t being thread-blocked by something less critical.

I do get a little gun-shy recommending HTML5 for safety-critical components, because JavaScript isn't inherently real-time. If you wouldn't feel comfortable using Java for a critical coding task, you shouldn't use HTML5 either. If you want predictable, real-time performance for a lower-level computation that cannot tolerate any delay, the code should execute in a non virtual-machine environment. Most code doesn’t really fit that description, so most of the time JavaScript should work just fine.

How do you call vehicle resources — vehicle HMI, vehicle diagnostics information, etc. — on a HTML web app in the car? What's the process in plain words?
In plain words, it’s kinda hard. :-) But here’s my best take on this question: we solve this by creating a vehicle-bus driver that exports data through a publish/subscribe mechanism. The HTML5 layer talks to that piece through a JavaScript interface.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Can auto wag the ITS dog?

Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) promise to deliver many benefits, from increased road safety to better traffic flow. It’s no surprise, then, that when people talk about ITS, it is often within the context of the auto industry. But is the auto industry alone big enough to attract the businesses needed to innovate and deploy ITS?

This question came up repeatedly at the Fully Networked Car Workshop held at the Geneva Auto Show, for the simple reason that auto is dwarfed by the telecom industry. Car volumes are measured in millions, whereas mobile phones are measured in billions. (In fact, evidence suggests the world may contain more mobile phones than toothbrushes.) It is likely, then, that businesses will focus on ITS-related applications, services, and infrastructure for phones — not cars.

Workshop panelists also pointed out that ITS extends beyond the auto or other transport industries; it is about enabling a connected society on the move. Consumers want mobility solutions that enable them to stay connected to all aspects of their lives in meaningful ways — not just optimize the efficiency and safety of getting from point A to point B.

The need for global standards
Regardless of whether auto or telecom drives ITS, we will need global standards for how these systems work. The good news is, major international standards development organizations (SDOs) are already trying to collaborate on the global standards needed to make ITS a reality. In fact, the Fully Networked Car Workshop was jointly sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

The ITU has also started a collaboration on ITS Communications Standards. The next meeting of this collaboration will take place at SAE Headquarters in Troy, Michigan, USA on April 3, 2012.

A non-starter without industry participation
Mind you, success of ITS standards cannot solely depend on cooperation of the SDOs. Industry involvement is just as important.

Some workshop participants argued, however, that standardization inhibits product differentiation and thereby acts as a barrier to industry participation. But others felt this could be managed by standardizing on the lower layers (i.e. communications layers) and differentiating at the higher layers (i.e. application layers). The one caveat raised was that some aspects of the higher layers need to be standardized for safety reasons. But even then, it is possible to standardize on safety and still differentiate on user experience.

Panelists also discussed the threat of government regulation as a motivation to develop and deploy ITS. Someone pointed out, however, that competition often acts as a bigger motivator for companies than the threat of regulation.

Wagging the dog?
So what will drive innovation and deployment of ITS? It seems that global standards created with industry participation are crucial. Perhaps even more important, the auto industry must start working more closely with other industries such as telecom and consumer to develop ITS solutions that not only help people get from point A to point B efficiently and safely, but also deliver value in other ways to consumers on the move — unless of course you believe that the tail can wag the dog!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Crossing the boundaries: Cooperation across industries will fuel the connected car

A guest post by Brian Salisbury of Telecommunication Systems (TCS)

Connected car – these two words appear together more and more these days. Consider, for example, two events that took place in February: The Connected Car Executive Lunch organized by Fierce Wireless and held during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and the Telecom Council’s Mobile Forum: Connected Car meeting hosted by Marvell Semiconductor in Silicon Valley.

Speakers at these events came from mobile operators (AT&T Mobility, Orange, Sprint, Verizon), auto manufacturers (Ford, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota), and platform and solution providers (Nokia, Pioneer, QNX Software Systems, TCS). No doubt about it, the car is now connecting industries.

Although these two events were held on different continents, the topics on the minds of attendees were very similar:

  • Who “owns” the customer?
  • Will the connection be part of the car, or brought to the car by its driver?
  • How can the “wild west” of the Internet be safely incorporated into the car?
  • What is the business model for such a multi-part solution?
  • What will be the “killer app” for connected car, or is there no such thing?

The presentations and discussions were diverse, as each group sought to define their role in terms that extend logically from their own past experience, and that could provide them with some control over the outcome. Thankfully, every group shared the common goal of making sure that connected cars are safe cars, and that the introduction of new connected services doesn’t create driver distraction problems.

We are clearly on the verge of a new generation of services being extended into the car that can enhance many aspects of owning, operating, and riding in tomorrow’s vehicles. Those of us fortunate enough to be part of one of these groups will have some amazing opportunities to bring the best of our respective industries into this new space, and to build new relationships across industry boundaries.

For an example of how TCS is helping to enable the connected car, check out this post on the VW Polo that was showcased at Mobile World Congress — Ed.

Here’s a little more about Brian and TCS:

Brian Salisbury is director of business development at TeleCommunication Systems, Inc. (TCS), where he is responsible for developing new business with OEMs, platform providers, and developers in the LBS ecosystem. Brian has worked in the mobile industry for more than 25 years, with most of that experience being in mobile data and location-based services, and within semiconductor, device manufacturer, and network operator companies.

TCS (NASDAQ: TSYS) is a world leader in highly reliable and secure mobile communication technology. TCS infrastructure forms the foundation for market leading solutions in E9-1-1, text messaging, commercial location and deployable wireless communications. TCS is at the forefront of new mobile cloud computing services providing wireless applications for navigation, hyper-local search, asset tracking, social applications and telematics.

Setting the Pace for Automotive Electronic Innovation

Welcome to the first installment in a series of guest posts from Paul Sykes of Freescale’s driver information systems team.

Recently, I traded in my MY2002 SUV for a new MY2012 vehicle. At the time, the MY2002 was quite advanced in its in-cabin electronics and styling, but wow — times have changed! Gone are the aftermarket satellite radio and PND that were attached, with wires dangling, at various places in my cabin.

The newest generation of vehicles offers complete and total integration, including new features that didn’t exist in 2002, such as USB/iPod interfaces, HD Radio, and a rear view camera.

But here’s the problem. I work in this great industry of automotive electronics and have some view of what’s coming in the next wave of vehicles. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Do I buy now or wait for the next model year? It’s like trying to time when to jump into your next cell phone or tablet purchase, only the time scale is a bit different.

The pace of electronic innovation has increased in this industry and you don’t have to wait 10 model years (like I did) to see it. It’s exciting to be a part of the supply base that is helping this industry move faster while maintaining some of the highest standards of quality and reliability over a long product life.

Fundamentally, at the heart of every embedded electronic vehicle system, incoming data needs to get processed and acted upon, using complex software algorithms. At Freescale, sensor and processor innovations make the future possible by doing these fundamental elements better, faster, and more reliably.

Ecosystem partners like QNX Software Systems provide many of the complex algorithms required to realize infotainment and instrument cluster systems. These same systems are often powered with Freescale i.MX processors.

In the latest generation, the i.MX 6 Series, Freescale has provided the most scalable line-up of products available. Scalability means not only performance and function scalability, but also pin-to-pin hardware compatibility across the entire series. This is one example of how the processor can help pick up the innovation pace. With hardware and software compatibility, system makers can develop more products to meet a broader range of market needs, in a shorter amount of time.

The Freescale i.MX 6 Series has been chosen to power the next-generation
GM OnStar system.

In future posts, I will offer Freescale’s perspective on many of the current trends in driver information systems as well as our product collaborations with QNX to bring unique value to the industry.

Here’s a little more about Paul and the Freescale Driver Information Team:

Paul has more than 15 years’ experience in the semiconductor industry, including product development, program management, and marketing positions. For the past several years, Paul has lived in Michigan and focuses exclusively on the automotive telematics, audio/infotainment, and instrument cluster application spaces.

Freescale’s Driver Information Team is driving the global strategy and product development for solutions to address the multitude of applications in the rapid growth and innovation area of Driver Information Systems. This includes instrument cluster, graphics displays, audio and infotainment, and telematics.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What the connected car is really all about (and what we need to do about it)

Recently, I was invited to participate in a webinar that highlighted hits and misses at Mobile World Congress. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested in what I had to say — at the very least, I’d earn points with Paul Leroux, our editor, for spontaneously offering up a blog post. :)  So here's what I said... almost verbatim.

    First, a quick intro on QNX: Many will know us as the wholly owned subsidiary of RIM whose software platform powers the BlackBerry PlayBook. But we also provide the de facto standard platform for all types of in-vehicle infotainment and navigation systems. And it’s from this perspective that I offer these comments.
    My primary observation is regarding the evolving dialogue surrounding the connected car and what I think it represents. Three years ago we were here with Alcatel-Lucent, showcasing the first LTE connected concept car, based on a Toyota Prius. This car proved so popular that we had to hire a security guard to help manage the traffic. Now, three years later, there are a number of connected production vehicles to be seen, including a QNX-based BMW 7 series in the GSMA’s connected home exhibit. And the announcements this year focused not so much on broadband connectivity per se (it's here, people expect it), but on the integration of the smart phone with the vehicle.
    At QNX, we talk about the personalization of the in-vehicle experience, as people want to bring in their own devices, their own music, their own contacts and other content — and experience these in the vehicle setting. For instance, Ford not only announced the B-Max vehicle, but used MWC as a platform to launch Ford Sync for Europe. Toyota and Samsung, meanwhile, announced support for Samsung Mobile Car Application for integration of phones to the car's head unit. So if step one was getting a broadband connection to enable a consumer experience in the car, and step two is about personalizing that experience, what’s next? 
    I think that, ultimately, the connected car is all about the consumer, and this is how revenue will be generated in a way that connected telematics on its own could never do. You could be an automaker interested in improving how to service a car and its owner after the car has driven off the dealer's lot. Or you could be a carrier interested in extending your offer beyond connectivity to deliver value-added services. Or perhaps you’re a small business trying to get more people in the door. In each case, the car represents a new frontier. And it offers the added value of context – not only do you know if someone is available and where they are, but you also know that they are driving a vehicle. 
    The next few years are going to be very exciting as the automotive and mobile industries converge to address this opportunity. Think about the brands involved: Companies like Audi, BMW, and GM on one hand and the likes of AT&T, Verizon, and Vodafone on the other. They’re mutually dependent — neither group will be successful without the other. Automotive needs to leverage the investments being made for smart phones, be it device technology, network infrastructure, or developer communities. Meanwhile, the mobile industry has to consider the nature of automotive in terms of safety, security, and liability, not to mention product life cycles. 
    It's safe to say that automotive is just the first example of this type of industry convergence and transformation. All of the carriers are looking at M2M as a huge untapped market opportunity. And within the classic embedded market, there are an almost infinite number of market segments, truly an example of the Long Tail. 
    It will be exciting to watch how mobile transforms those markets and vice versa — what will mobile look like in 5 years from now? I don’t think we can easily predict it; after all, it's not going to be like anything we’ve seen before. But I can’t wait to find out.

So there you have it. If you'd like to hear the entire webinar, you can register here to access the archived version.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A quick tour of the QNX CAR 2 application platform

If you're looking for a quick, two-minute intro to the QNX CAR 2 application platform, you've come to the right place.

In this video, Kerry Johnson, automotive product manager at QNX, takes us on a tour of the platform, including its home screen, media player, application area, HTML5 support, phone app, and acoustic processing.

Ready? Then hit the Play button and let's get started:

In case you didn't know, the QNX CAR 2 platform forms the basis of the QNX concept car, a specially modified Porsche 911 that demonstrates what to expect in next-generation car infotainment systems. Earlier this year, the platform drove home with a 2012 Best of CES award, in the Car Tech category.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

TCS showcases hybrid navigation system in VW Polo

The Porsche 911 concept car that won the 2012 Best of CES award wasn't the only QNX-outfitted vehicle at Mobile World Congress this year. Our friends at TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), who provide hybrid navigation software for the QNX CAR application platform, showcased a VW Polo running the same QNX-powered navigation, maps, and local search capabilities as the Porsche.

Like the Porsche, the Polo featured a retrofitted infotainment system in place of the factory radio — and TCS did a very nice job integrating it into the car.

The Polo was a hit, driving discussions with mobile operators, handset manufacturers, automakers, and automotive tier ones. Seems the connected car is a hot topic just about everywhere you go these days.

Here's the Polo in the TCS booth:

And here's a close-up of the retrofitted infotainment system:


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

HTML5: Bustin' the myths

Did you know you can build HTML5 apps that don't use an Internet connection? Did you know you can run HTML5 apps without a web browser? And did you know HTML5 apps can show snappy performance even on automotive silicon? (As you can well imagine, in-car infotainment systems don't ship with quad-core server-class CPUs.)

If you answered no to any of these questions, you need to stop for a minute and check out this interview with QNX Software Systems' Kerry Johnson. Heck, even if you answered yes to all three questions, you'll probably still appreciate what Kerry has to say — and besides, you'll catch a glimpse of a complete in-car UI coded in HTML5. What could be bad?

While I have you, check out Andy Gryc's Q&A series on HTML5, if you haven't already. You'll find the first two installments here and here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Audi A8 drives home with best connected car award

This just in: Connected World magazine has announced the winners of its first annual Connected Car of the Year awards, and the Audi A8 has won top prize in the ultra-luxury category.

According to Connected World, the awards honor vehicles with technology that strikes the right balance of safety, convenience, and infotainment. The magazine's editorial team decides the winners.

The Audi A8's infotainment system, dubbed the MMI, is based on the QNX Neutrino OS. The MMI offers some extremely cool features, including 3D navigation powered by Google Earth and a touchpad that lets you input destinations names by tracing them with your finger.

Here, for example, is a photo of the navigation display:

And here is a photo of someone using the touchpad, known as MMI Touch:

Both these photos were taken at a QNX Automotive Summit that took place in Stuttgart in 2010.

Connected World also handed out awards to the Ford Focus, Chrysler 300, and Cadillac XTS. These cars won in the small, mid-size, and luxury categories, respectively.