How to pimp your ride, Computerworld style

Rigging up your car with internet access is easy

There has been a lot of hype lately about Internet in the car, but do-it-yourself pioneers like Bill Rigby have been enjoying on-the-go browsing for years. So far, no one has been hurt.

Rigby, who is director of online account services at Computerworld, has rigged up his 2001 Jeep Wrangler with a laptop and power supply in the back that feeds a touch-screen monitor mounted on his dash, augmented by a bunch of mobile gadgets.

After looking for packaged, turnkey solutions that didn't fit his needs, he chose the do-it-yourself route in the summer of 2005.

"I just find it irritating that I can't be online every moment of the day," said Rigby. "I'm taking steps to make that a reality. If I could just build a computer into my skull, that might be the solution I'm really after. Also, I like to have things that other people don't have. I wanted people to drive past me on the highway and see me operating a full-blown Web browser at 65 miles per hour. I just thought it might impress people. Five percent are impressed, and the other 95 percent think I should focus more on driving my car correctly."

Always seeking the cutting edge, Rigby has voice-activated functionality, speech-to-text, GPS, broadband or Wi-Fi Internet access, and automatic synchronization with his home network. And he's not done yet.

"This might sound crazy but I want to connect to the diagnostics computer in my Jeep," Rigby said. "I'd like to run an application that could monitor gas consumption, horsepower and give me error codes when my Jeep is breaking down so I can figure out what's really going on when the engine light comes on."

For the record, Rigby has mounted a Dell Latitude D520 laptop at the rear of the Jeep, powered by a Monster Power MCPI-300 power supply unit that readily accepts the power cord of the laptop. The laptop is mounted in a docking station that feeds cables to the system, including a USB cable connected to an IOGEAR 4-Port USB 2.0 Hub that in turn feeds various devices. Rigby has routed his cables underneath the carpeting used plastic wire covers and ties to hide everything from view, including a video cable that goes up through the dashboard to his Lilliput 7-inch VGA touchscreen monitor.

"Finding a good place to mount the touchscreen is a problem," Rigby said. "My Jeep has a nice flat spot on the dashboard that worked really well. Other people might not be so quick to drill mounting holes in their cars. Finding wires long enough to run from the front of the car to the back, and hiding them, were problems as well. With some creativity, a couple hours and a six-pack of beer, I was 100 percent installed. It really was easier than I thought."

When not using the touchscreen or voice-activation, he operates the computer with a Microsoft Wireless Optical Mouse 5000, which fits nicely on his center console between the seats.

For Internet access, he connects his BlackBerry 8703e, which provides Verizon broadband services. His connection speeds vary, but he estimates he averages about 1M bit/sec. download.

For hands-free operation, he relies upon a Jabra BT200 Bluetooth headset that lets him answer voice-over-IP calls through his laptop, and in combination with speech-to-text software lets him control car computer applications.

If he wants to take advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots, he uses a Hawking Technology HWL1 802.11b/g WiFi Locator to find them and connect via Windows.

For software, he relies upon Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 speech-recognition software for voice commands, the Click-N-Type virtual keyboard if he needs it and Verizon VZAccess Manager for broadband access.

Rounding out the gadget lineup is a Belkin TuneCast Mobile FM Transmitter that pipes his audio through the Jeep's sound system.

"The ability to bring your entire MP3 and video library everywhere you go is great. It's been a long time since I've been bored in my car. And bumper-to-bumper traffic is a good time to catch up on a TV show. I have a friend who will sit there and watch all the featured videos on YouTube whenever he's in my car on a long drive. One time he took a video of us driving with a Webcam and posted it to YouTube from the highway -- just because he could."

Although the packaged applications he first looked at were too expensive, tricky to mount or just not flexible enough for his needs, he sees that the industry is catching up with consumer demand rapidly.

"There are actually people out there doing this," he said. "I've seen a message board out there on the 'Net where people can share their ideas and describe their installations. Technology has become so mobile and inexpensive that I think it's just a natural progression to have a computer built in to your car. It's no doubt that in the future they'll come like this from the factory. We're already starting to see this type of thing on high-end cars."

Rigby, though, will likely stay ahead of them.

"It would be interesting if I could somehow control the state of my apartment while I was driving home from work," he said. "In other words, I'd like to be able to log in and flip the heat on while commuting home. If I could get my crock pot going that would be pretty nice, too. I would like to do useless things like this just because I can."

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David Ramel

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