Ride is a little bumpy for in-car PC linkups
By Scott Kirsner, 5/19/2003
We're parked in the garage of a multimillion-dollar home in Swampscott. The engine of the Mercedes CL600 is running. The car doors are open. In the front seat, Andrew Rollert and Alex Huff are once again rebooting the PC they've installed in their client's car, trying to get it talking to the home's wireless network. Rollert is talking to an engineer on his cellphone. In the back seat, I'm starting to get light-headed from the exhaust fumes. This $100,000-plus Mercedes is one of the first cars in the country to be outfitted with a PC capable of connecting with the owner's home wireless network, allowing him to download MP3 music files and Rolodex information from his home computer to his car, or upload e-mails that a passenger has composed on the road. Is being one of the first to see the system in action, I wonder, worth a touch of carbon monoxide poisoning?
The car was outfitted by Rollert's Wellesley company, SaVoyant, Boston Audio Design in Quincy, and Truman Mobile Systems, the Minneapolis company that Huff works for. There's a custom-designed PC in the trunk, and a seven-inch color LCD display mounted on a short post protruding from the center console. Passengers can control the PC using a full-sized wireless keyboard, or by touching the screen. They can watch DVDs, play videogames, or write the next chapter in their Kerouac-inspired road novel.
Rollert, whose company installs and maintains high-end home networks, said a system like the one in the Mercedes would cost between $7,000 and $10,000, adding that he has a waiting list of 10 customers eager to have one installed in their vehicles.
''People spend so much time in their cars,'' he said, ''that they think they should be able to do the same kinds of things that they can do at their desk or with a laptop.''
Back in Swampscott, after several reboots and phone calls to Rollert's office, the car finally realized where it was and started talking to the home's wireless network. Inside the client's house, we downloaded an MP3, and when we returned to the car a few minutes later, we found it had been automatically transferred to the car. (Rollert said his client, who runs a food wholesaling business, prefers to remain anonymous.)
Unfortunately, when we tried to play the music on the drive back to Boston, the sound was fuzzy. The system was using a small battery-powered device called an iRock to send the music from the PC in the trunk to the radio, via a short-range FM transmission. The song sounded like it was being broadcast by a Top 40 station in Paraguay. (Rollert said the PC's audio would eventually be hard-wired into the car's stereo system, solving that problem.)
When I went along for a test ride last week, the car was only capable of tuning in to WiFi wireless networks, which meant we only had Internet access in the garage, or parked near someplace with an open wireless network. We found one in front of Cheers on Beacon Street, and used it to pull up some traffic information while we were stopped in front of the bar. Rollert says he may eventually add a wireless card that can communicate with Sprint's PCS data network, which would allow the car to stay connected to the Internet as it is moving. Passengers could then check movie times, manage their brokerage accounts, or participate in an exchange of instant messages.
Also in the works is a fingerprint reader, which would authenticate the driver before starting up the computer.
''You don't want the valet parking guy surfing the Web or checking out your files,'' Rollert explained.
Budget battles: The videogame
If you've ever entertained the idea of running for public office, you'll want to try your hand at the just-released online game ''MassBalance,'' developed by the Game Development Club at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The project was initiated earlier this year by state Senator Richard T. Moore, who wanted to give citizens of the Commonwealth a hands-on way to understand the trade-offs involved in trying to balance the budget. The student-run WPI Game Development Club stepped forward, agreeing to design the game for free. (The students, led by Michael Gesner and Darius Kazemi, will receive a few course credits for their work.)
Players encounter a spreadsheet-like interface that asks them to figure out how much they want to fund various program areas, from education to transportation to economic development. You can choose to raise taxes or cut spending -- or do a bit of both. But every action has a repercussion. Raise taxes, and people blame you for hurting business activity and prolonging the recession. Cut funding for public health, and the state could be in bad shape to handle a SARS-like epidemic.
You can play the game at http://gdc.wpi.edu/massbalance, and find out more about the Game Development Club at gdc.wpi.edu.
Dr. Start-up and Mr. Shutdown
Update the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel about a man with two personalities for the post-dotcom era, and the main character would resemble Edward W. James of Framingham. You could title it ''The Strange Case of Dr. Start-up and Mr. Shutdown.''
James is a consultant who works as a temporary executive for healthcare start-ups -- at the same time as he is working on behalf of venture capitalists to shut down high-tech companies.
On the positive side, James often conducts due diligence for investors interested in funding companies that make healthcare products, like infusion devices. He has been involved in successful roll-ups of companies in medical imaging, billing, and ambulance services. One roll-up, AdvaCare, went public in 1992. He's frequently involved in corporate restructurings that put a company back on the right track.
But over the past few years, James has also been doing a lot of what he calls ''organized shutdowns,'' when a company is closed down and sold for parts. ''I don't do bankruptcies and I don't do big companies,'' he says. James is paid a day rate for his work, and if there's more money left in the bank than expected at the end of the process, he sometimes gets a cut of that.
James is understandably reluctant to talk about his shutdown work. ''A lot of times, investors are embarrassed, and they don't want to be reminded of their bad adventures,'' he says. His job often involves laying off employees -- and making sure that they don't walk off with the company's computers on their way out. Then he's involved in selling the company's assets, including the software it may have developed.
James has worked on five shutdowns in Digital's old Maynard Mill complex, including that of Digital Goods (formerly SoftLock), a small public company that helped customers securely distribute e-books and other electronic content. One of his current projects is serving as interim CEO and CFO of Network-1 Security Solutions in Waltham, which was delisted from the Nasdaq Small Cap Market in March. The company is being sued by its former CEO and CFO, has lost money each year since going public in 1998, and is now approaching closure.
I asked James whether he was seeing a decline in the number of new shutdown projects he is asked to handle. ''I think there's a lot more to occur,'' he says. ''I'm still picking and choosing what I'm working on.'' James says he has worked every weekend and evening since mid-March, and in that time has turned down a year's worth of new projects. But he adds: ''I do believe we will come out of this, and the Internet will once again drive the investment community.''
Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.