Many iPod users have seen “iPod Your BMW” television ads, which advertise the ability to connect your iPod or iPod mini to the stereo included with several late-model BMW vehicles. That’s not the only way to directly connect an iPod to a car stereo, however, and one of the most hotly anticipated solutions is coming this September from aftermarket car audio manufacturer Alpine, the same company that designed and manufactured BMW’s solution. The KCA-420i is a new interface box designed to work with Alpine car stereos that include “Ai-Net” command capabilities, and the solution actually offers more functionality than BMW’s offering, including the ability to view artist, album and track information.
A “black box” of sorts, the US$99 KCA-420i serves as a bridge between the Alpine car stereo and the iPod. Command protocols sent by the head unit are translated into something the iPod can understand, and the data and music from the iPod is in turn sent to the head unit. Also, the KCA-420i charges your iPod’s battery when it’s connected.
Alpine has spent a significant amount of resources over the last five years studying what they term Human Machine Interface (HMI) design. The focus, explained Alpine Vice President of Brand Marketing and Communications Steve Witt, is on delivering simple and easy-to-use products. “We’re highly focused on minimizing driving distraction,” he told MacCentral.
ClickWheels and Knobs
“If we can minimize the driver’s interaction with devices and create an interface that is ergonomically simple then we have a device that has more consumer appeal and is safe,” said Witt. “And what we discovered through this design process is that we and Apple share similar design philosophies.”
Witt also confirmed that Apple was responsible for the genesis of this design. “This all started with a conversation at the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) between Apple’s [Senior] Vice President of [Hardware] Engineering [Jon Rubinstein] and our product planning people,” he said.
Like Apple’s iPod designers, Alpine likes rotary interfaces: Ai-Net-equipped head units feature a rotary knob that will let users scroll through playlists just like they do with their iPod. What’s more, the head units feature “QuickSearch” buttons that let drivers more efficiently access artist, song or album lists.
“Consumers love a knob more than anything, especially in a car where your primary focus is on operating the vehicle,” said Witt.
And unlike BMW’s solution, which offers a connector cable in the vehicle’s glove box, Alpine’s offering can be installed anywhere in the car — behind the dash, under a seat or in the trunk. The interface adapter measures 7 3/32 x 1 3/8 x 6 5/16 inches (180mm x 35mm x 160mm).
The KCA-420i interface works with any 2004 model year Ai-Net equipped Alpine head unit; they’ve been on the market since December 2003. Some units sport a two-line display, but “Multimedia Station”-class Alpine head units also feature a motorized LCD screen that extends when the stereo is in operation. While the interface functions identically regardless of what kind of display is used, AV head unit users will see more lines of their playlists displayed.
The interface can work with virtually any Dock Connector-equipped iPod or iPod mini, including all third generation and fourth generation systems. Alpine cautions that users should apply the latest Apple software update to their iPod to ensure compatibility, however. iPods that have been updated with iPod Update 2004-04-28 or later should be fine.
The installation itself will be offered by all authorized Alpine retailers. Users interested in getting more information about where and when can e-mail Alpine or visit the Web site for details.
A bit longer than expected
Alpine first announced the development of the KCA-420i interface in January, 2004. At the time, the company suggested the interface kit would be ready during the summer. More recently, Alpine indicated that it would be released in the fall, and has since clarified that to mean September. What’s caused the delay?
Earlier this year, explained Witt, Alpine learned from Apple that they were to make software changes that affected how their devices worked, and it’s taken some extra time to incorporate those changes into the interface design. “That moved our target back about 60 days,” he said.
What’s more, it looks like Apple and Alpine’s partnership will extend beyond just this forthcoming interface. “We’re working together to further enhance iPod integration in 2005,” said Witt.