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Mobile app can 'name that car' in mere seconds


Unless you’re a serious car buff, you probably find it difficult to tell one make and model of vehicle from another, particularly when there are more than 30 years worth of car models on the road at any given time. The typical witness will be even less astute. How can you be sure what car you’re looking for?

One solution is the Vehicle Identification System, or V.I.S., from Ten 8 Industries. This is an ambitious project, but a simple idea. Collect photos of every make and model car likely to be in use in the United States. Capture at least three perspectives (front, back, side) whenever possible. Index them by year of manufacture, make, and model, and put them into a computer application — or better yet, an app for a smartphone.

Done.

V.I.S. is both a smartphone and a conventional PC application. On the iPhone and iPad, it’s called V.I.S. and free, for Android phones, it’s the “Patrolman’s Vehicle Guide” and costs $1.99.

The PC application is sold on an annual department subscription plan ranging from $199 to $4999 per year, depending on the number of cops in your outfit.

The software author is a cop with an agency in Southern California who got the idea while serving as an observer in a police helicopter. He was looking for a stolen Saturn Ion, and thought it was a small SUV. He spotted a sedan, but dismissed it as being the wrong car. It turned out he had the right car — an Ion is a small sedan.

That was when he got the idea for a ready reference for vehicle makes and models that cops in the field could keep with them and have accessible at all times. It’s a great way to leverage the power of the small data device. In the bad old days, this system would have required several large binders full of photos that would be outdated in less than a year.

Given the number of photos in the data set, the iPhone app is remarkably compact. On my phone, it occupies 4.3 MB, or about the same room as three songs in a playlist.

The database is automatically updated as long as you have a connection to iTunes, although the photos reside on your phone, not in “the cloud.” You aren’t dependent on a data connection to use the app. The list goes back as far as 2001, with around 43 makes in each model year.

The photos are mostly real-world pictures as opposed to manufacturer’s showroom or advertising photos. At a minimum, you’ll have an image of the front, back and side of each car, although the specific angles vary. The selection is surprisingly esoteric.

There may not be many Lamborghini Gallardos running around your town, but if you need to know what one looks like, there are photos of one (actually, several, allowing for different model years) here. You only get one color choice per make and model year. If you’re looking for a red one and the only one in the index is green, you’ll have to use your imagination.

A minor bug I found on my iPhone app was with the list of makes for 2012. The list, which appears on one scrolling screen for other model years, ends with “Updated 11-07-12 Mor...” after the listing for “Hyundai.”

Clicking on that option produces a blank screen and an ever-rotating “I’m trying to download something” icon at the top of the display. My bet is that Ten 8 will fix this as soon as they read this review, because the rest of the app works flawlessly.

One nice feature is the ability to email any image directly from the app. If you want your beat partner to know what the newest Ford Edge looks like, bring up a photo and touch the envelope icon at the bottom of the screen. An email message with the photo embedded in it appears, ready for addressing.

Your department may or may not want to come up with the cash for a subscription, but if you have a personal iOS or Android device, you need to have this app running on it. 

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