Electronic Design

Car PC, Part 3: iMobilePC Navigation

This is the third article in the Car PC series. It brings out the full power of the system through iMobilePC's Executive Car PC System. This software runs on Windows XP or Windows XP Embedded. It works with the Car PC we built or any comparable PC-based platform. This includes some factory installed platforms as well as add-ons.

New Hardware

The key hardware addition needed for this part of the project came from Mini-Box. In this step we tie the system together with a VM7000 7-in. touchscreen monitor (Fig. 1). The monitor has a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio with 800 by 600 pixel resolution. It can scale images from 720 by 400 to 1280 by 1024 to fit on-screen, with the usual scaling limitations and artifacts.

The VM7000 is designed to sit atop the dashboard. It has a two-way adjustable swivel mount. The display can also be mounted vertically — such as on the back of a headrest — so it is not restricted to control and navigation uses. The monitor accepts a single VGA input and a pair of composite video inputs. The touchscreen interface is via a USB port, and drivers for Windows 2000 and Windows XP are included. There is also a built-in speaker.

The front panel has a set of labeled buttons for power, on-screen display menu control, and input selection. A thin, battery powered, infrared remote control is included with the system as well.

The unit comes with individual cables for video inputs and for the USB connection plus power connections. The unit can run off the same 12-V supply as the Car PC itself.

Hooking the VM7000 up for initial testing was easy. Adding wires to the power connector took the most time. The rest of the cables plugged into the back of the Car PC chassis. The supplied cables are long enough to reach the floor of the car where I have the Car PC for testing, but final installation depends on where you can fit the Car PC. Extension cables may be required.

Loading the touchscreen software no more difficult than installing the usual Windows USB-based driver. It does provide mouse emulation out of the box, but most applications do not take the small screen size into account and using the stylus is tedious at best. It is obviously impractical when the car is moving.

Mounting the unit and routing the cables for the final installation can take you quite a while depending on what you do with the dashboard and how the cables are routed. I was able to run them through a hole where the vent was, but this option may not be available to everyone. The cleanest approach, though more difficult, is to punch a hole through the dashboard near the stop where the VM7000 is placed. There are connections on the VM7000, so it is possible to run the cables without having the display in the way, connecting them when everything is in place. For now, my installation is semipermanent but adequate.

The display was bright enough for all but the brightest sun glare. The iMobilePC software can switch backgrounds for night operation, though there is no automatic detection of the external light levels.

The other new hardware addition was iMobilePC's USB-based GPS unit (Fig. 2). A GPS unit is required by the iMobilePC's navigation system. Most will work with the software, but going with one that matches the software source tends to eliminate compatibility issues.

Installing the GPS unit involved a little extra effort that is noted on their website. It is actually an issue between Windows and most USB or serial-based units. It seems the default configuration for Windows is to look for a serial mouse, and it often thinks a USB GPS is one of those little critters. A minor tweak is all that is required to get Windows to back down and stop "doing you a favor."

New Software

My installation of the iMobilePC software was done over a network connection, since I detached the DVD drive I had used to install Windows initially. I didn't plan on playing movies on the system and it was just one more box that needed a home. Instead I took advantage of the Belkin 802.11g USB adapter and access point (Belkin 802.11g and USB Hub, ED Online #13409) I used in the Multimedia Control Center (ED Online #13330) project.

The garage was in range of the wireless access point, and the Belkin 802.11g USB adapter plugged into the system courtesy of a non-powered USB hub I had around the lab. I used Microsoft's Remote Control Desktop support to handle the installation so I didn't have to add a mouse and keyboard to the mix. It turns out to be a very handy way to update the system and perform regular maintenance, as well as upload any audio files. It also makes it significantly easier to edit things in some parts of iMobilePC, compared to using the touchscreen. For security purposes, I can always pull the 802.11g USB adapter.

Installation via the network also turned out to be handy for registration purposes. Like many applications, the licensing requires a key and then online registration. This can be done offline, but it is quicker online. It locks the application to the system, so it pays to keep an image backup after the installation process is complete. Luckily, the Seagate Mometus hard disk used in the project has plenty of space to reserve a partition to hold a backup coming off the system. It doesn't hurt to burn a DVD; but you may need two, depending on what you have installed on the system. Do this before you upload anything extraneous like music files.

The iMobilePC Executive Car PC System software did not require any major tweaking once installed. You can customize the interface and add your personal information using the menu system but the system is very functional right out of the box.

The iMobilePC Executive Car PC System is a modular package designed to work with a small touchscreen like the VM7000. The most used feature, accessed by the first button the main menu (Fig. 3), will likely be the navigation system (Fig. 4). The system comes with a number of standard options, including a media player (Fig. 5), DVD player (DVD drive required), scheduler (Fig. 6), and address book. The latter two can be used in conjunction with the navigation system to select a destination.

There is even a web browser interface, assuming you can get a connection. This is actually not as far fetched as you might anticipate, even doing without a cellular interface. All you need is an 802.11b/g interface and proximity to the nearest Starbucks or other wireless hot spot, and you can enjoy your coffee while browsing and checking your e-mail.

The iMobilePC navigation system is better than some I have seen, but still falls short compared to others. Like most software, it is a work in progress, and while this one is relatively polished, there is room for improvement. Better integration with the scheduler and address book would help, but the system is quite usable as is.

The navigation module has a number of different map views, including the usual top-down 2D view and some 3D perspective views. I have not decided which one I like best yet, but they all provide the necessary pointers and trails to simplify driving. Audio feedback is part of the package, so you get turn warnings in advance.

The only trouble I have had with the navigation system was using it initially, because the GPS did not work from my garage (where I installed the software). I had to get it on the road so it knew where it was. By default the GPS unit remembers the last place it was...and in this case, it was somewhere in the midwest.

It is possible to use features like the multimedia player while the navigation system is tracking your whereabouts. Still, the multimedia player interface is one area that could be improved upon, because of the complexity of the button interface and the size of the buttons. An update is expected but I didn't get to try it at this point. The module does support audio and video, plus multiple playlists, and it has features such as automatic playlists based on ratings. One thing I would like to see is a radio button-style interface for selecting say the top 8 playlists.

The calendar turns out to be an easy way to prepare for a trip. This can be especially handy for scheduled driving such as deliveries. The calendar can synch with Palm and Windows Pocket PCs, but I didn't have one handy to test.

Finally, there is the calculator. Nothing overly sophisticated, but it is handy to have around.

There are a number of optional modules that work with the iMobilePC system. These include XM satellite radio support and a car monitoring interface. They require extra hardware — available from iMobilePC — and the satellite radio is a subscription service, so there is an additional charge for that as well.

The iMobilePC menu system can start up other Windows applications — but keep the screen size in mind. Applications written for the desktop do not fair well in any tablet or touchscreen environment. On the other hand, it is an easy way to provide limited integration with the system. The difficult part is switching between applications. It is relatively easy to use something like Visual Basic to create a custom application with large buttons and text that mesh well with the small 7-in. screen and touch interface.

There is an API (application programming interface) available, but most applications are currently available only through iMobilePC. Custom application support will likely be the path for those wanting to develop an iMobilePC system for fleet use. The Windows XP platform is ideal for development and deployment of mobile applications, and the Car PC platform can be extended with custom or off-the-shelf hardware. For example, remote communication could be added via a cellular modem. The iMobilePC software may be targeted at the consumer automotive environment out of the box, but the ability to work with iMobilePC may present many opportunities.

There may be more Car PC articles in the future as iMobilePC's software continues to grow, or as other alternatives arrive. There are some features I have not had a chance to check out, including the addition of a DVD to the mix; although movies should not normally be played on a screen that the driver will want to use for navigation. Multiple monitors might be employed in this instance.

I am hoping to put together a Q&A with the developers of iMobilePC (could be part 4 of the series) so stay tuned.

A Closing Note

My projects tend to take a long time to complete, so the "latest" hardware often gets superceded by newer products. In particular, check out Mini-Box for the latest VoomPC-2 case (Fig. 7) and the motorized VMI70 7-in. TFT LCD monitor and touch panel (Fig. 8).

The VoomPC-2 uses a similar extruded anodized aluminum case with space for the same kind of Mini-ITX board and power supply used in this project. It also adds support for a slimline DVD drive. Check out compatibility with your motherboard before planning on using the drive, though. The case is still a tight fit. The front panel has USB and audio connections that may be helpful in some environments.

The VMI70 is impressive, although if you checked out a top of the line car and its nav system then you may seen something like it in the dash already. The visual specs are similar to the VM7000. The VMI70 has a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels and it has a 16:9 aspect ratio. The 12-V power consumption is 8-12 W. It supports two composite inputs in addition to the VGA input and it has a built-in TV tuner. Just add an antenna.

For more information, check out Car2PC, InDashPC, iMobilePC, ITOX Applied Computing, Logic Supply, Mini-Box and Seagate.

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