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All the (Electronic) Comforts of Home

Watching DVDs in the car is so last year. The latest round of in-vehicle entertainment focuses on watching TV from built-in hard drives and surfing the web while speeding down the highway (passengers only, please).

If you get beyond the excesses of the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show (CES)—the Mt. Moto snow-covered mountain built by Motorola for extreme freestyle shredding; women dressed as MSN butterflies at the Microsoft stand; the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders jiggling and grinding at the Sirius booth—and get down to the essence of the Next Big Thing for automotive electronics (although given that the show is held each year in Las Vegas, why would anyone imagine that you'd be looking for anything but the obvious. . ?), it's this:

The car is destined to become an electronic extension of the networked home. Electronics suppliers seem convinced that customers' appetites for TV watching and web surfing know no bounds, and are busily working on ways to transform vehicles into rolling entertainment centers complete with the familiar choice: satellite or cable?

Cable in the Car. The mental image that accompanies the concept of cable TV in the car is the cartoonish one of a vehicle trailing an unending coil of jet black coaxial cable. The reality is that getting cable programs in the car relies on the more manageable technologies of WiFi and hard drives. To demonstrate the possibilities, Delphi Corp. (www.delphi.com; Troy, MI) developed a prototype unit that combines a dedicated hard drive and a WiFi node that receives content from a cable TV set top box. The premise:

You can program your cable box to send your favorite shows to your car's hard drive where it is stored for later viewing. 

Think of it as an interim step between the now common built-in DVD player and the ability to watch real-time television broadcasts in the car. Comcast Corp. (www.comcast.com; Philadelphia, PA) is providing the content through a joint development project that Dr. Robert Schumacher, Delphi's business line executive for wireless, says has a goal of "developing an end-to-end solution for getting video from the home to the car." The project is scheduled to have an 18-month development and evaluation lifespan, but given the fact that both portable hard drives (think Apple's iPod) and WiFi hotspots are rapidly expanding mature technologies, we could well see this quasi-video-on-demand in cars sooner than that. "The technology is not problematic," says Schumacher. But while the big technological issues have been worked out, there are still some niggling details like how to handle power management. Since a car's WiFi node would be powered by the car battery it would have to be programmed to spend most of its time sleeping, then waking up at set intervals to query the set top box for any new content. As for cost, though miniature hard drive systems are not cheap, some pricey components like the video decoder chip can be shared with existing built-in DVD players.

Rolling Hotspots. Satellite TV's rebuttal to cable in the car is:
"Why rely on external WiFi hotspots when you can be one?"
Samer Salameh, president and CEO of RaySat Inc. (www.raysat.com; Vienna, VA) says his company's vehicle-mounted satellite antennas can transform cars into "rolling hotspots," capable of receiving both real-time satellite TV broadcasts and broadband Internet access. RaySat's antennas use essentially the same phased-array technology found in the huge domes that grace the tops of many RVs, but its debut model, SpeedRay 3000, is only 5-in. thick and can be mounted to the roof rails of an SUV or minivan. This is hardly an earthshaking achievement since competitors like KVH Industries, Inc. (www.kvh.com; Middletown, RI) already sell similarly sized units. What is noteworthy is that the SpeedRay will include a transmitter for real-time satellite-linked Internet sessions (with download speeds of 2mbps and upload speeds up to 128 mbps) linked to a WiFi node that broadcasts the satellite connection throughout the car. Samer explains that RaySat achieves this first by converting one of the four moving panels sealed inside the antenna that track and receive satellite signals into a transmitter. Priced at $3,495 plus monthly satellite subscription fees, the SpeedRay will occupy a specialty niche inhabited by those who can't bear the information disconnect a long drive represents. But Samer is looking ahead to smaller and cheaper units. The company has already developed a prototype for a sleek 2-in. thick antenna dubbed StealthRay that it plans to put in production in 2006. "In 2007 I want to have a sub-1 in. antenna that can be installed by the OEM in the factory," says Samer, who reckons that a factory-installed unit could go for $2,000 or less and sell well over a million copies a year. But technological hurdles may slow that plan, because to achieve a thinner antenna the complex belt and gear system that now positions the tracking panels must be replaced by a solid-state setup that tracks satellite signals electromagnetically. RaySat has been able to eliminate some mechanical parts in the StealthRay prototype, but Samer acknowledges, "We need to have a breakthrough to get to 1 in." (Delphi is also working on satellite antennas for the car. See: http://www.autofieldguide.com/articles/030403.html.)