Windows CE is enabling an expanding mobile market for what might be called "PC companions," appliances that promise flexibility, productivity and fun. And the automotive PC is an integral component of the mobile strategy. From the point of view of the PC world, mobile devices will combine new access to remote data with local processing power. From the perspective of the automotive world, the Auto PC becomes a powerful platform that allows development of new applications such as in-car telematics, systems management, monitoring and "infotainment" solutions that include multimedia, navigation and wireless data retrieval.
The Auto PC is among the devices powered by Windows CE, a scalable 32-bit operating system. Essentially, mobile computing devices-from the handheld PC to the palmsized PC-enable people to take important information out of the office to use where and when they like. Windows CE will likely do the same for Auto PCs.
The challenge for hardware engineers is to create a computer that fits in the space used by a typical car radio yet is still easy to use in the unique environment of an automobile. The Auto PC platform is designed to allow people to take information from their PC and access it conveniently and safely in the environment of the car via voice activation. Auto PC programs are tightly integrated and can be operated by simple spoken commands or familiar faceplate controls. The platform employs an advanced, speaker-independent speech-control system.
The speech recognizer supports standard speech application programming interfaces (SAPIs) common in the computing industry. As a result, third-party application developers can create new programs for Auto PCs that use the operating system's existing speech-recognition vocabulary, without having to write speech-recognition programming into their applications. It also means that when users get new applications for their Auto PC, they'll know they can use the speech commands that they currently use.
Basically, the Auto PC platform is designed to extend the power of Windows CE by combining features found in a high-end audio system with the power of pioneering speech technology. An Auto PC, such as the Clarion AutoPC, fits in a typical car dashboard in place of the car's radio.
Besides the features that users would typically find in a high-quality car radio, the Auto PC has a 16-bit digital audio system with an AM/FM stereo tuner that can be controlled with voice commands, and a compact-disk player that doubles as a CD-ROM drive for loading and playing Auto PC software. There is also an address book, a navigational system with optional global positioning system (GPS) satellite technology that can pinpoint a location and an IrDA infrared port for exchanging data with handheld and palmtop PCs
Auto PC is equipped with the Universal Serial Bus (USB) and a CompactFlash slot, allowing users to extend the value of their Auto PC with many third-party options such as CD changers, a cellular-phone cradle for speech recognition and wireless communications.
The wireless application built into the Auto PC platform manages the information created by content providers and sent to the device over a wireless network. A cellular telephone integrated with an Auto PC reduces car clutter and allows users to take advantage of the contact information stored in the system. Users can also get vehicle diagnostics information that tells them how their car is operating. For example, Vetronix Corp. (Santa Barbara, Calif.) has developed a diagnostics and maintenance program called Vehicle I/O.
Microsoft is looking for the best means of implementing voice control-especially the user interface requirement for an in-car environment- critical process monitoring where safety is a priority, GPS-based navigation and standards for wireless data delivery.
Future Auto PCs will support larger screens, especially aftermarket products, and hard real-time. Expect to see more support for multimedia expansions such as Internet-based audio and video.