VW Cyber-Passat surfs web, plays video at freeway speeds (Picture Gallery)

Posted by Humphrey Cheung

San Francisco (CA) - Ultra mobile PCs or UMPCs have been heavily touted by Intel, but so far there hasn't been any "killer app" to catch any significant attention. Intel is partnering up with Volkswagen to change that by developing UMPC-enhanced cars capable of surfing the web and playing video at freeway speeds. At the Intel Developer's Forum, attendees gawked at a prototype 2006 Passat that could playback music, videos and podcasts. It could even stream two different videos to the backseat monitors.

See pictures of Volkswagen's cyber-Passat ...

The car was initially rolled out onto the stage during Paul Ottelini's keynote. Ottelini and Anand Chandrasekhar, Intel's Senior VP and General Manager of the Ultra Mobile Group, showed off a full-keyboard UMPC that could playback music and video. Using simple finger-swipe navigation, made possible by interface software from StreetDeck, could fast forward and pause playback. Afterwards, the Passat made its way to the exhibit floor so attendees could get a closer look.

Volkswagen engineers fashioned a form-fitting docking cradle inside the glovebox of the Passat. After docking, navigation screens and media are streamed from the computer to a 9" touchscreen LCD headunit. Eric Jensen, Volkswagen's Project Engineer for Connectivity and Computing gave us a detailed demonstration of the UMPC's features.

Most drivers will primarily use the UMPC for navigation. Using GPS and a WWAN Internet connection, the car can show real-time location and can give direct-to point of interest navigation. Navigation can be shown as a top-down overlay or on satellite imagery from the web. The car can also display traffic incident information, but Jensen admitted that navigation instruction and traffic cannot be shown at the same time. "In the future, we are looking to combine navigation and traffic, along with providing dynamic rerouting around accidents," said Jensen.

While navigation is important, media playback is where the UMPC really shines. The car can playback MP3s and videos in various formats to the two backseat monitors. For safety reasons, Volkswagen won't allow videos to be played on the front headunit. Music can be streamed from the Internet or played off the UMPC's drive. Drivers can also synchronize and playback podcasts. Jensen plans on adding a Slingbox feature to stream television from the driver's home.

Jensen stresses that the UMPC will not replace the headunit, but rather "augment" it by adding more storage, better navigation and wireless capabilities. The standard headunit will probably be able to control the radio and play CDs, but in a less flashy fashion. "We want a standardized headunit that is low cost and easy to install, then the whole point is to just upgrade the UMPC as needed," said Jensen.

Like many other car options, there will be luxury and low-end UMPC packages. Jensen told us that the docking station solution, with a large screen headunit, will be available for luxury customers. A basic package would have the UMPC directly plug into an empty headunit slot.

When can we expect Volkswagen cars to sport the new UMPCs? According to Jensen, this could realistically happen in a couple of years, but he added, "If there was enough demand, it could happen in a year."

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