Taking to the tablets

Dismissed by some IT analysts, the tablet PC is a totally new computing theory which played an integral part of VX Racing’s success this season. Charles Clarke reports.

In a season where competition was closer than ever, VX Racing still managed to win the 2003 BTCC by a healthy margin. Central to maintaining its competitiveness was the integration of all its computer systems and its use, for the first time this year, of the new technology offered by RM Technology’s Tablet PC.

‘We’d love to claim that VX’s triumph was all down to our Tablet, but it’s well known that success in motorsport is a team effort,’ said RM Technology’s marketing manager Lesley Criddle. ‘The Tablet has made a significant contribution, but the real win is the integration of all VX’s systems.’

Rarely does a single evolution of a technology completely revolutionise the way things are done. Last year Triple Eight used pre-printed sheets to record lap times, and laptops to download, distribute and display vehicle characteristics data. This year the Tablet has done away with both these systems and increased throughput and efficiency.

The Tablet was greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm from analysts, IT observers, commentators and pundits. Fortunately, Richard Walker, Triple Eight’s IT manager, could see the possibilities. He said he was surprised the IT community could neither appreciate this new computing theory, nor grasp its uniqueness. ‘For us in qualifying it can make the difference between fifth on the grid and pole position,’ he said.

Triple Eight uses Tablet PCs from RM and some home-grown, custom Visual Basic software called RICAS as the replacement for the pre-printed paper data collection technique. ‘Because the main system interface is not intended to be used commercially there are few stylistic affectations,’ said Walker. ‘It was developed to do a specific job, no more no less.’

The interface hardware on the cars this year is USB, so the Tablet can be ‘hot plugged’ in and the data downloaded at much higher rates than last year’s serial interface. So the sequence will be: plug-in, download, send data to server, process data, send data back to the Tablet.

Because of the speed of data transfer both from the car and to and from the server by a wireless network, these tasks are to all intents and purposes immediate. ‘In 20 seconds or less the processed lap data is displayed on the Tablet screen and shown to the driver,’ said Walker. ‘Because of the experience of our drivers they can assimilate this data in the amount of time it takes to change the tyres.’

The advent of the Tablet has meant that delays once experienced using laptops and a serial connection to the car have disappeared. Then, data would be downloaded – a relatively slow process – and transferred to the server either in the garage or a truck. it would then be printed out and taken back to the car where the driver could eventually see the results.

Now they can view detailed data from their laptops instantaneously, enabling them to make critical decisions about their next lap – something they have never been able to do before.

In order to speed up the input and to avoid handwritten recognition inaccuracies the engineers suggested a number of frequently-used keywords like understeer, oversteer, entry, mid and exit that can be accessed from a drop-down menu.

With the new system, once the information has been entered a report can be brought up in Internet Explorer. This saves engineers at least half a day on the Monday after a race weekend. The data is already captured and the system formats reports inseconds.

Triple Eight is seriously impressed with the Tablets. ‘We’ve got six RM Tablets and we haven’t had a single failure all year which is really saying something for Windows machines in a high-pressure environment,’ said Walker.

So Walker, who went out on a limb to back the unheralded device now regards it as indispensible.

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