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QNX CAR: Driving innovation to the dashboard using Adobe Flash

by Eric Oldrin

When I think about Adobe Flash, I get really excited about applications that live outside of my computer or my phone. Don't get me wrong. There are some amazing projects online that make me swoon with innovation envy. But there's just something really cool about seeing Flash used in a dishwasher, a defibrillator, or on a dashboard. Maybe it's just the fact that my dad can finally understand what I do for once or maybe, Flash in the "real world" actually becomes more powerful, blending elegant design with contextual code to enhance everyday experiences.

For this article, I sat down with Andy Gryc and Paul Streatch from QNX Software Systems, the company that developed QNX CAR, an application platform that facilitates the production of Flash-based, in-vehicle systems. At first, I was just interested in ways to make my dash look like Knight Rider but as I quickly discovered, when QNX CAR and Flash connect your car to the cloud the possibilities are limitless.

The QNX CAR application platform facilitates a variety of automotive experiences. It allows carmakers to deploy Flash-based interfaces in head units, digital instrument clusters, rear-seat infotainment systems, and other in-car products. It supports experiences like on-demand movies, multi-player gaming, Internet radio, social networking, and location-based services. Not to mention, it allows third-party developers to design and deploy applications on a car's infotainment system.

During our talk, the most important aspect of QNX CAR I noticed was relevance. As you can probably imagine, cars take a long time to design, build, and market. During that latency, the in-car interface systems often get a bit out of synch, even before they're launched. "The lead time (to build a new car) is two to three years," says Gryc, Product Marketing Manager at QNX Software Systems. When that same vehicle is just a few years old, everything from GPS content to iPod firmware can easily become outdated, if not obsolete. "So we asked," says Gryc, "how can we keep in-vehicle systems and the experience they provide relevant?"

One way is to enable rapid prototyping and development. QNX Software Systems allows customers to leverage numerous pre-integrated multimedia technologies and third-party applications built into the QNX CAR platform, like Pandora, Fanbase, and Facebook. This pre-assembled approach allows automotive developers to skip traditional (and lengthy) integration efforts and work immediately on product differentiation.

Of course, Flash itself has been key to this strategy because it can be reused across multiple hardware platforms and it can be quickly deployed without first being translated into low-level programming code. Not to mention, customers can take advantage of the applications they and others have already built in Flash.

Once applications have been developed and a vehicle has been purchased, QNX CAR continues to keep in-vehicle systems relevant through mobile connectivity. "Connecting to the cloud and insuring Internet connectivity is key," says Gryc. From core technology to contextual content, QNX CAR is able to keep a car current.

"If you just bought a $60,000 BMW, the latest iPod had better connect. This is a huge challenge, with the growing number of devices," says Development Manager, Paul Streatch. And as Gryc says, "The middleware and services that provide this connectivity need to keep pace, and the applications that use those services have to be updated to take advantage of new features. Flash makes it relatively simple to make updates to application firmware. You don't have to wait until the next model, the next year, your next car — you can get it right away."

When it comes to automotive content, relevancy is even more important because a lot of automotive content is contextual. I don't want a GPS system directing me to the nearest gas station or suggesting the best restaurants if it's not up to date.

"These are things with direct relevancy to the user experience," says Streatch, "the ability to look up coffee shops; get current business and home phone numbers; access news feeds, traffic cams, and weather reports; or even check if your lights are off at home — anything you want to look up while in your car." This real-time, connected, contextual information is at the core of QNX CAR and makes me wonder how we've gone so long without it. It seems like the most important place to have contextual content is in a car.

Of course, that is what an instrument panel displays. My speed, mileage, and engine light are all contextual content and QNX CAR enables amazing innovations in those areas as well. One of my favorites is the ability to dynamically configure the instrument layout — replacing my tachometer with a backup camera when I shift into reverse. But when it comes to content beyond my car, why do I always have to use my iPhone? QNX CAR promises to change that.

Entertainment content is a big part of what makes the QNX CAR platform so interesting. It enables internet radio, on-demand movies, the latest television, multiplayer online games, online video, and social networks. The platform pre-integrates content from a variety of sources, like Atlantic Records, Chumby, Kabillion, Pandora, and Tunewiki.

Not only is it nice to have access to so much content, it's exciting to imagine the possibilities when content and context collide. We've already begun to see the potential in mobile applications from groups like Foursquare and Yelp. I'm looking forward to seeing what developers create when they integrate their ideas into the dashboard of an Audi.

On that note, the developer community is one of the other important aspects of QNX CAR that I appreciated. They're empowering third-party producers to build almost anything they can imagine. And, that's where things start to get really interesting. QNX Software Systems publishes the source code to its Flash-based HMI framework on its developer portal, making it easy for third parties to extend it. Developers can use the platform to design a new dashboard, develop a new type of instrument, or invent some new form of geo-located entertainment.

Customers could visit an automotive app store and purchase these third-party designs, instruments, and content. Of course, developers will generate revenue but more importantly, car owners will have access to experiences that will fundamentally change the way they drive. From up-to-the-minute directional content to custom-designed instruments, drivers and passengers will find a wide and constantly growing variety of tools, applications, and entertainment.

Indeed, Flash in any "real world" application can be incredibly compelling but in the fundamental context of driving, it's resoundingly innovative. I'm looking forward to seeing what's next from QNX Software Systems and their community of developers. If I'm lucky, someone might even design a Knight Rider dash.

A digital instrument cluster based on QNX CAR that pulls up-to-the-minute
weather through the infotainment unit's Internet connection.

QNX CAR supports Pandora Internet radio, allowing car occupants to rank
songs, create new stations, and view song history.

Like all screens in QNX CAR, the main menu can easily be reskinned
with custom graphics, logos, and look-and-feel.

QNX CAR allows car occupants to remotely manage home systems, such as lights
and thermostats, or even view a live video feed from home security cameras.

Like all screens in QNX CAR, the intuitive climate controls are based on Flash.

The QNX CAR virtual mechanic displays the status of the car's brakes, tires, power
train, electrical systems, fluids, and other components.

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Eric Oldrin is Executive Producer / General Manager at Digital Kitchen.