Automotive Multimedia: real time retreats, user orientation comes in focus

Automotive Multimedia infotainment, ADAS devices, and generally automotive electronics is being very specific market with trends not always looking obvious. Initially, let’s say ten and more years ago, we saw the picture characterized by many small and very narrow focused devices based on proprietary platforms and true real-time (RT) executive environments, including operating systems and all related technologies.

After some period, things began to change. Powerful integrated CPUs with enough MIPS and integrated peripheria gave an ability to build complex devices with a number of functions packed ‘in one’ to include telematics and infotainment applications. The classic example is Head Unit device, which integrates the most of multimedia functions being very hard loaded with different kinds of features and having onboard almost all functions, initially distributed across the number of infotainment and communication devices like CD-changer, telephony gateway, navigation unit and so on.

As automotive market is one of the most conservative, initially even complex user-oriented devices including telematic systems were built on RT-platforms reusing many of historically verified and trusted solutions being mostly legacy of 90th. And that time it was looking as world will go the same way and increase sophistication of proprietary platforms keeping existing decisions and smoothly extending it with yesterday’s technologies packed in very specific RT framework.

The alternate way which was presented in about Y’04 by some minor market players was like “to bring a computer to the vehicle”. It was based on the idea that PC and maybe even PDA already have the most of functions potentially needed for vehicle user and well extensible due to open plaforms (or at least APIs), availability of tools and libraries as well as reduced engineering skillset required for programming.

The attempts to bring PC/PDA to the car were failing. The main reason was in quite specific user’s interaction needed for in-vehicle context: user can’t operate with traditional keyboard, mouse and wide display and software can’t be easily reworked to use very different vehicle controls. Another problem is in software development process nature. Car driver can’t wait, he’s acting quickly: junctions, merges, traffic jams, he does every action very fast and gets very fast feedback on it, especially when it comes to ADAS applications. The same is what he expects from every car device including multimedia infotainment devices or ADAS systems. He can not and doesn’t want to wait for application download, deployment and launch, couple minutes of software startup are incredibly long when you drive a car. But desktop and even PDA software is oriented on much slower lifestyle and fast feedback isn’t a top priority for the developers.

It is what we saw by now and majority of these processes is what we can see at the moment. The vehicle multimedia functionality expected by the user is very similar to PC or at least portable telematics, multimedia or infotainment devices like PDA, however it is implemented using RT-oriented, not UI-oriented tools of the day before yesterday. We also see more and more aggressive attempts to change the nature of in-vehicle multimedia with bringing Linux and especially Windows Auto as the target platforms for head units and other user-oriented devices and enable in-vehicle user with the functions already implemented in desktop and portable computers. However the results are not completely successful due to the very specific environment, assuming easy controls like button pads instead of full-size keyboard, voice recognition or the worst case touch screen instead of mouse and so on.

But we are definitely at the turn point. Legacy technologies are unable to provide the modern level of multimedia and infotainment capabilities required by vehicle user, they are hard for extension and making troubles in integration with other parts of the current ‘electronic’ and ‘online’ worlds being more and more common for the most of us. And we need to expect the mutual process: vehicle multimedia will migrate to computer technologies, leaving it’s real-time basis in the past and becoming more and more user-oriented, not device or communication oriented. And computer technologies will need to be adopted and enabled with speech technologies, small touch screen instead of wide display, three-five buttons input etc. to fit to not only automotive, but ‘on the move’ environments.

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