Backseat Beat

You might not realize it, but there is a revolution going on in the backseats of vehicles across America. In the past, the backseat was venue of "the license plate game," storytelling, and, when parked, an occasional session of what is quaintly referred to as "necking." But those days are over. Now the backseat of your car, SUV, or minivan has become the competitive battleground of the entertainment and electronics industries.

You want proof? More than one million backseat entertainment systems were sold in 2002, and that number is expected to grow in 2003 as more families take advantage of the videotape, DVD, and gaming options available to them. Almost every 2002 model SUV and minivan offered systems like these as options, and consumer acceptance has been tremendous. Some 96 percent of Nissan Quests, 31 percent of Ford Expeditions, and 30 percent of Ford Windstars were equipped with video systems, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Further research indicates that almost 50 percent of full-size SUV owners report that they plan to buy video systems in their next vehicle. Can you blame them? Anesthetizing children during long car trips with video and games seems much more humane than other options, which include the use of prescription drugs or tying them up in burlap bags.

While systems have been purchased by more and more consumers, a major downside with backseat entertainment has been the difficulty in tuning in live television. Some antenna systems for cars do a decent job of bringing in strong over-the-air signals, but even with the best systems, reception can get sketchy, depending upon vehicle direction and location. Meanwhile, the new generation weaned on the 300-channel satellite TV universe finds over-the-air TV lame at best.

Enter new technology. At the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, KVH Industries introduced a new system that will allow families to leave their DVDs and videos at home and instead enjoy 300-plus channels of DIRECTV satellite-delivered television entertainment, news, sports, and movies. The new antenna system, called TracVision, will also enable motorists to access more than 50 channels of commercial-free music that are also available to DIRECTV subscribers. Finally, TracVision is expected to be expandable to provide access to mobile, high-speed Internet access via satellite at a future date.

So how was KVH able to get satellite TV reception without using the big, parabolic antennae that are now proliferating on rooftops across the country? The answer is space-age technology worthy of national defense applications.

Where traditional in-motion satellite TV antennas for boats and recreational vehicles use parabolic reflectors and domes to collect and focus satellite signals that stand an ugly 12 to 20 inches high, the ultra-low profile TracVision system incorporates breakthrough phased-array technology to create an antenna that stands only four and a half inches high, making it practical for use on cars, minivans and SUVs without becoming an eyesore.

"For satellite TV to become a reality aboard automobiles, we had to invent an entirely new approach to satellite antennas," Said Kits van Heyningen, KVH president and chief executive officer. "For the first time, a satellite TV antenna offers a rugged, flat design suitable for the family SUV, minivan, or car at an affordable price."

How does it work? To understand it, a degree in physics might be useful, but in layman's terms, TracVision uses a "phased-array" design that integrates hundreds of small antenna elements across a flat surface. By turning this phased array on its azimuth (which is only appropriate for consenting adults) and tilting it slightly, the antenna remains pointed at the satellite in the southern sky, regardless of vehicle motion. At the same time, an electronic "lens" bends the satellite signal so that more of the broadcast energy strikes each individual element. The separate signals from each small antenna element are then recombined to create a single data stream that supports multiple receivers and video screens. With all this technological trickery at work, the ultra-low-profile TracVision A5 in-motion satellite TV antenna can be unobtrusively installed on the roofs of most vehicles.

So if you don't think your kids are watching enough TV, or if you would like to tune into CourtTV, Discovery Channel, or A&E while your spouse pilots the vehicle, the new antenna, which is set to go on the market prior to the summer vacation season, might just be the ticket.

Managing Editor of Driving Today, Jack R. Nerad has three wonderful daughters who love DIRECTV and are remote control virtuosos.