REDMOND, Wash., May 21, 2003 — When the drivers, mechanics and technicians for Target Chip Ganassi Racing (TCGR) start their engines at this year’s Indianapolis 500 on May 25, they will seek to repeat the team’s 2000 victory with a little help from Microsoft technology. TCGR has worked with Microsoft to develop an innovative wireless communications tool to help team members convey messages and information through the noise and bustle of the race track. The custom application is built using the .NET Framework on the new Microsoft Real-Time Communications (RTC) Server 2003, and uses the soon-to-be released digital ink functionality of Microsoft Windows Messenger to enable handwritten Instant Messaging (ink-IM) on Tablet PCs. PressPass asked Mark Paxton, TCGR research and development engineer, and Microsoft’s Kelly Berschauer, senior product manager for Tablet PC, to describe the new solution and explain how it benefits the TCGR team.
At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Target Chip Ganassi Racing research & development engineer Mark Paxton (foreground) sends an ink-IM to the other pit during a practice lap.
PressPass: Could you begin by describing the situation that your engineers and technicians face at the track during a car race?
Paxton: First of all, let me give you some background about our racing environment. Target Chip Ganassi Racing (TCGR) usually has more than one driver in a race. In the Indy Racing League (IRL) we have two car entries, and in NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) races we have three. So we often have more than one car running on the same track at the same time. The tuning changes and other technical settings that one of the engineers and his driver make to their car during practice sessions and race pit stops can often be relevant to the performance of the other cars. We have recognized the opportunity to improve the efficiency of the race car tuning process during the brief practice sessions by sharing this information among all TCGR engineers, pit crews and drivers.
So communication between the pit crews is very important. However, we often have situations where technicians are not located physically close enough to conduct verbal communication efficiently. It’s very loud on the race track, so it’s practically impossible to communicate in the pit using a cell phone. It’s just too loud. Running handwritten notes back and forth between pit crews is possible, but because of the speed of the race and the necessity to make fast decisions, this form of communication is just too slow, especially for back-and-forth, two-way communications.
Also, the security of communications is an important consideration. Racing is a very competitive environment and it’s vital that our competitors aren’t aware of our strategies or how we are operating our cars. In racing, we all face the same challenges and basically all run on the same equipment. So maintaining any kind of competitive advantage is critical. It’s very important for us not to make our strategy visible to our competitors.
PressPass: How did you address this problem?
Paxton: We worked with Microsoft to develop a custom solution that employs Tablet PCs, Real Time Communication Server 2003 and Windows Messenger with support for digital ink to securely and instantaneously send handwritten messages back and forth between technicians and the pit crews. As an example, as a car pulls into its pitbox, the engineer makes an adjustment or fixes something, then handwrites a note about this modification on the Tablet PC. The message is instantly communicated to the next engineer in his pitbox.
Berschauer: The Microsoft custom solution utilizes RTC Server 2003 as a secure backend, with Windows Messenger using digital ink functionality for handwritten instant messaging on Tablet PCs, and allows a totally secure, ink-IM conversation back and forth. The TCGR is also able to store these conversations for future analysis. The end result of this solution eliminates their top communications problems – noise and physical distances at the track between the team members.
PressPass: What kind of information is communicated between the team members on the Tablet PCs using ink-IM?
Paxton: Our communications are primarily focused on the results of race car specification changes that we make during a racing session. A typical conversation might be: What was your most recent set up change? Is the car performing better or worse? What tire pressure are you running right now? These are the settings we are running. The response might be: Oh wow, we might try that, too.
PressPass: Besides ink-IM, how else does TCGR use Tablet PCs?
Paxton: We also use the Tablet PCs as an interface to a custom engineering tool that accesses a database of confidential and proprietary information about the cars. We use the Tablets’ full computing functionality — they are not just used as Instant Messaging machines.
Berschauer: TCGR used the .NET Framework to develop a custom engineering tool utilizing Microsoft’s SQL Server database technology. With the Tablet PC, the technicians in the pit can pull from this back-end database, look at it quickly, make adjustments to the cars and communicate back and forth to other team members using handwritten digital ink on the Tablet PC.
They also are able to capture and store all this information and communication for use in future races. You’re not going to be able to do that if you have a phone conversation, or if you run a note across the field.
PressPass: A lot happens during a competition at an outdoor race track. How does this impact what you look for in a technology solution?
Paxton: As I mentioned, security is vital to us. We operate in a very competitive environment, and it’s important that our competitors aren’t aware of the work that we’re doing. The data that we send is confidential and an important part of the race strategy. We need to be certain that no one else can hack in to our wireless infrastructure and intercept those messages along the way. We are very satisfied with the built-in security features of the RTC Server, and that is one of the reasons that we chose to use it rather than an Internet-based server system.
It’s also important that the Tablet PC provides an interface that’s intuitive to use. Our engineers are using the application in a very aggressive environment. You’ve got to understand that there’s a lot going on during practice sessions and races. During practice sessions, the engineers are standing out in front of the car, and each of them is usually in charge of ten mechanics and other team members. It’s a very complex, fast-paced and event-filled work place. The Tablet PC is the team’s main documentation machine, replacing pen and paper. Making sure that the user interface is robust and intuitive enough to use in a hectic environment has been one of our challenges. The highly mobile Tablet PC form factor gives us many options for dealing creatively with this challenge.
Berschauer: Portability is important to the success of TCGR solution. On the track, you definitely want to make sure you can use your Tablet PC for a long period of time without worrying about recharging batteries. This weekend’s race at Indianapolis is 500 miles long and can take up to 3+ hours to complete. Also, with the Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 slate form factor, they don’t have to deal with an attached keyboard. The Tablet PCs are very mobile, so the engineers can comfortably carry them around as if they were clipboards.
PressPass: How did TCGR work with Microsoft during the development of the solution?
Paxton: Creating this solution has been a very big step for TCGR because not only did we not have the software infrastructure in place, we also didn’t have the hardware set up. So we’ve relied very heavily on our contacts at Microsoft Consulting Services. We’ve worked with one of the .NET consultants since last December, and he’s been able to understand our needs, not only from a software point of view but from a hardware point of view as well.
PressPass: For TCGR, the Tablet PC and RTC Server solution is in fact a business application, but car racing is quite unlike most businesses. What potential do you think this technology offers more traditional businesses?
Berschauer: TCGR’s use of Tablet PCs, RTC Server and Windows Messenger is a great example of information work in extreme conditions. TCGR’s competitive advantage results in making its race cars faster. But more traditional businesses can also streamline their collaboration processes and gain a competitive advantage using similar solutions. One of the real advantages of the Tablet PC’s flexible form factor is the ability to use ink to communicate instantaneously in a very natural way, regardless of where you are. And because of the RTC’s in-built security features, the information sent via Windows Messenger can’t be intercepted. Everything remains confidential. Since the Tablet PC is a full-powered computer, users can take advantage of information stored on back-end databases and use custom applications to make instant business decisions on the fly.