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Digital road show

DVD players, VCRs, surround-sound systems and in-dash computers are turning driving trips into multimedia extravaganzas.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2000


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[Photo: Audiovox]
It started years ago with radio to make trips more bearable. Now, passengers can enjoy movies from DVD players or VCRs, or play on video game consoles.
The family car is turning into a digital road show.

In the back seat, movies, video games and digital music occupy the kids on long vacation trips with entertainment centers that have DVD players and LCD screens.

"Anyone with a child under 10 recognizes the value of video in a vehicle," said Gene Kelsey, vice president of Panasonic's audio division, one of the companies coming out with mobile entertainment systems for cars this year.

In the front seat, Mom and Dad can stay connected with e-mail, Web surfing, traffic reports and maps, cell phone calls and music through voice-directed dashboard computers.

Turning the family vehicle into a rolling entertainment center started modestly with videocassette recorders, small TVs and video game systems in back seats. Oldsmobile was the first automaker to offer a factory-installed entertainment system in its minivan in 1998.

Now, soaring sales of big sport utility vehicles, the continuing popularity of minivans and advances in electronics are combining to make it a growth market.

"DVD will make it take off," Kelsey said. The CD-style video discs are smaller and easier to handle than tapes, with a better picture and surround sound capabilities. No figures were available on how many vehicles have in-car entertainment, but Kelsey thinks it could reach 30 percent of the market in a few years.

Adding DVD is the next step up from using videotapes, says Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc., an industry consulting firm in Michigan.

"When you get around the hype," Hall said, "they're enhancing a function that's already there."

The consumer electronics industry sees an expanding market. Traditionally, marketing for car entertainment systems targeted young, male drivers with flashy cars. Now, Kelsey says, the industry should focus on families with SUVs and minivans.

Part of the evolution is the growing number of companies expanding product lines or joining the field.

Mobile video was its fastest-growing category last year, with sales of about $50-million, according to Tom Malone, vice president of Audiovox Corp.'s Mobile Electronics Group. Demand is so great, he wouldn't venture a guess on how much it will grow this year.

System prices can vary, depending on options and screen sizes. Panasonic's DVD player costs about $1,500 -- without a monitor that can add another $1,300.

The average cost for an Audiovox system is $2,500 including a monitor, Malone said. If it comes down to the $1,500 range this year, it could open the market to more consumers, he said.

One of Audiovox's new products is "Video in a Bag," an all-in-one portable unit with a 5-inch screen that can be moved from car to car or into the house.

In-car entertainment is not a big screen experience. Most measure 5 inches to 7 inches diagonally (though some units can go up to 13 inches) so they can be mounted on the car ceiling, the back of seats, headrests, consoles or even a pedestal so someone can adjust the view. The players can be in the dashboard or in the back with the screens. You have to have them installed.

And, no, it's not for drivers, with most states banning screens from a driver's view.

As competition quickens in entertainment for backseat passengers, it's beginning as well in dashboard computers. Clarion's AutoPC, the first on the market last year, will be joined by several others as more companies try to turn the car into an extension of the home and office through wireless connections to the Internet.

"It's a fast-paced world, and the pace is picking up," said Nick Difiore, a product team leader for Visteon, a division of Ford that has a series of products aimed at the mobile market. "People are looking to improve productivity without giving up the balance between their work life and personal time."

The dashboard computers operate by voice commands, and most have text-to-speech capabilities that will "read" the e-mail, news or other Web-based reports to the driver.

"Our voice system is going to work," said Jim Kreitsch, a Visteon systems engineer, "allowing drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel and both eyes on the road."

Demonstrations at a noisy trade show, even with different users, proved his point. Voice technology for cars requires fewer and simpler commands, unlike dictation products available for PCs that so far have failed to meet their promise, Kreitsch said.

Visteon calls its in-dash computer ICES -- information, communication, entertainment, safety and security system. Dial a phone, request e-mail, change a radio station -- all with voice commands. It is expected on the market this summer, and a price has not been set.

Motorola will have the iRadio, offering wireless Web access for news, traffic and stock reports, e-mail and downloading music and books.

"We want to bring you snippets of things that are important to you," said Mike Bordelon, a vice president in Motorola's Telematics Communications Group. "If it's on the Web, we'll deliver."

In addition to the cost of the systems, which will probably be $1,000 to $3,000, users will pay monthly subscription fees of about $15 to $20 for the wireless services.

The auto industry is adding its own dashboard touches. At the recent Detroit Auto Show, concept cars featured a video projection screen in the dash where the gauges and other controls should be. The dash can be configured just like the desktop of a computer, with different backgrounds and gauges displayed to meet the tastes and needs of different drivers.

As with many technological innovations, the entertainment and computer systems have their critics. Safety groups such as AAA worry about distractions, and some child development experts think using an entertainment system as an electronic babysitter in the car sends the wrong message.

The industry says that it, too, is concerned about safety. Voice activation and buttons mounted on the steering wheel are intended to keep drivers focused on the road, not the gadget. And if the kids are quiet in the back because of the entertainment, that enhances the driver's ability to concentrate.

Even with voice commands, though, in-dash computers have small display screens so users can see which radio station is on or which function has been called up. And those could distract a driver's attention.

AutoPacific analyst Hall says cities and states may ban text displays for drivers.

"There are people who shouldn't be chewing gum and driving at the same time," Hall said, "much less doing their e-mail."

Even some in the industry temper their enthusiasm for these gadgets invading the car. Among them is Trevor Creed, chief interior designer for the Chrysler and Dodge brands.

"I see the car as an escape, a place for getting away from the hustle and bustle of work," Creed said.

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