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The integrated helm

By Brent Renneke

Driven by technological advancements, helm displays have become all-in-one solutions offering more than many ever thought possible.

Innovation in technology has made the seemingly impossible commonplace. And those never-dreamt-of capabilities in smartphones, homes and cars are not lost on the marine industry.

From the dad behind the helm of the runabout to the captain of a mega yacht, technology has transformed the helm into an integrated, all-in-one display controlling everything today’s boats have to offer, from ballast tanks to ever-improving marine audio.

Multifunctional displays like those offered by companies like Furuno, Raymarine and Garmin, as well as those implemented by many boat builders, have allowed boat owners to control every facet of their vessel.

Often no larger than 15 inches, these displays more often resemble iPads than the series of switches offered by the industry’s forefathers. And more importantly, the integration they offer has opened up the cockpit while accomplishing even more.

“In the last 30 years, integration is one of the biggest innovations inside the boat,” Rick Correll, president of Tigé, said. “It cleans [the helm] up, it reduces potential failure, but it also makes the experience for the driver so much more interactive.”

At Tigé, the vast majority of its boat models use a single touchscreen display that controls the stereo, ballast tanks, bilge pumps, blowers, the depth finder and any other feature installed in the boat. Operators can also view videos of previously recorded riders and compare it to videos of professional wakeboarders or skiers.

With boat builders specializing in water sports, this sort of interaction is more commonplace, and it has been taken to a new level as developments in much larger industries have come to fruition. Technology based in smartphones, vehicles, computers and more have evolved into the recreational boating market.

For example, the latest version of Nautique’s LINC system introduced in the 2012 model year allows a boater to create profile systems for a wakeboarder that automatically change the ballast level, music volume and speed control. This is all made possible through communication between the engine and satellite GPS often used by automobiles.

“All of those things changing with the simple selection of a user profile simplifies the integration of the features,” Greg Meloon, vice president of marketing and product development at Nautique, said.

Tigé’s display system offers 20 presets that allow you to set the speed, ballast levels and trim tab position. “It is almost like being able to slide your hand into the screen and into the heart of the boat and do whatever you want,” Correll said.

Not just for the wakeboarders

Granted, builders of boats for wakeboarding have an inherent need for such systems that other segments do not. However, the integration of features like chart plotters, sounders and more into one, multifunctional display has become an industry-wide luxury.

Eddie Winder, president of distributor Wintron Electronics, said multifunctional display systems have been flying off the shelves. A particular hot spot are the smaller displays that are an all-in-one chartplotter and sounder with wireless connectivity and media integration.

“It used to be units of 10, 12 and 15 inches, which precluded smaller boats,” he said. “With these smaller units, you now see them all the way down to a 23-foot Sea Ray.”

Eric Kunz, senior product manager at Furuno, said the integration trend started roughly 20 years ago with the combination of a chartplotter and sounder, but today’s systems have leveraged technological achievements in other industries to expand on those capabilities.

Networking, for one, was introduced in the late 1990s and allowed different components in the same unit to work with each other, at which point radar was successfully integrated into the displays. Now, such systems have added Internet connectivity, Kunz said.

Kunz said boaters now reach out to the Internet through a satellite connection allowing boats to hone in on grid weather data, for example, without the need for a smartphone or Wi-Fi. And since the beginning of 2013, software upgrades for multifunctional displays are pushed directly to the unit, so operators no longer have to download the upgrade to a SD card. Users can also push data from the machine to their home computer.

“Just like you run apps on a smartphone, you can have different functions built into these displays. That is where it has been going and will continue to go,” he said.

Tigé uses a single touchscreen display to control most functions.

Tigé uses a single touchscreen display to control most functions.

The ability for different displays to communicate also made boating safer. Kunz said in the past if a radar display breaks down at sea the boater would be without that data. With two multifunctional displays communicating with each other, boaters have redundancy in both systems sharing the same data in case one breaks down.

Winder, who primarily distributes marine electronic products, said another important innovation in the realm of integration is the ability for stereo systems to communicate with multifunctional displays.

Now, Raymarine, Garmin and others have installed software that communicates with stereos, enabling the boater to control it from the display.

This ability is now a requirement for marine audio companies with many of their OEM customers, according to Jason Lee, senior manager of product planning at Clarion.

Lee said innovation in networking has made this possible, as the industry was able to modify a system widely used in automobiles. Now, multifunctional displays are able to display applicable information about the song and even album art.

Only getting better

The majority of these innovations did not originate in the boating industry because it simply is too small for developments specific to it. Instead, it originates in mass-consumer markets, like smartphones and automobiles.

For instance, the processors installed in many displays are more powerful than ever and have decreased in price, but there is potential for them to become even cheaper.

Furuno, for example, uses a processor that puts it at a price point for the high-end consumer; however, Kunz said the future could involve using processors seen in smartphone technology that would drop the price of the displays and widen their consumer base.

Boat builders are also paying attention to outside innovation. Meloon said gestures like those used with the Xbox Kinect have been researched at Nautique. Potential impact of this could be displays with the ability to track the movement of the boater’s eyes, so if the operator looks in a certain direction the chartplotter or radar would turn to that direction, he said.

“This stuff is just going to become more mainstream, and people are going to accept it as we are going along,” he said. “They just make the whole experience a little easier for the average boater.”


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