I have a new (used) car, and I'd like to be able to talk with my passengers while I'm driving it. Great!

Problem: The vibration of a car's engine and the car rolling over the road happens to be right around the few frequencies of speech I can hear, which in the past has led to chronic episodes of - ah - educational detours, as friends yelled "GO RIGHT! RIGHT!" and I went "go straight? OK!" and missed our turn. Repeatedly. I'd usually lipread, but turning to lipread passengers is not a particularly great option when you're going 60mph down a highway. In the dark. In the rain. In Boston.

What if I didn't have to turn to lipread?

I roped Mark Penner (Olin '07, in town for the holidays) into a lunchtime hackfest; after about an hour and a half, we ended up with this, and I am quite pleased with it. Behold.... the dashmirror.

Catchier names are welcome. I had to make this name up so this post could have a title.

It's a simple design. The parts cost $36.62, but I'm pretty sure you could do it for cheaper.

  • $4.39 for the mirror; we found one you're supposed to clip to your car visor and just removed the clips. The important thing was finding a cheap light mirror of the right size.
  • $3.99 for the smallest, cheapest tube of 5-minute epoxy we could find.
  • $24.99 for the cheapest generic universal GPS in the store. It was still overpriced.
  • And then 9.75% Illinois State Tax to make up the remainder.

Assembly instructions: clear off back surface of mirror, choose broadest and flattest attachment for GPS mount, epoxy mirror to that attachment. Like I said, it's a simple design. The tough part for us was finding the parts.

"Where did you buy that?" my mom asked when I showed her. "We made it," I said. The black plastic matches, so the pieces look like they were meant to go together - but nope, they're really two separate things. That was nice; I usually don't come up with very aesthetically pleasing mechanical hacks.

This is actually the third dashmirror I've made, and the first one I've been satisfied with. I cobbled together the first one when I was 17 in order to adorn the extra family car I drove to college (Melmobile v.1.0). It consisted of a large document clip clamped to the rim of the odometer, a piece of stiff wire, an abandoned mirror I think may once have been intended to be mounted on a bike, and random strips of (homework) paper in a futile attempt to make the diameter of the wire large enough to stay inside the holes on the mirror casing. It was perpetually falling either off, apart, or both, and frequently vibrated too much to render my passenger readable, and was utterly nonadjustable, but it worked. I'd looked for better parts, but they weren't there; why should they be? Nobody else needed dashboard/windshield mounted visual displays for getting route information while driving, right?*

That's why walking through the GPS accessories section while part-hunting for v.3.0 today was like a little slice of happy future shock. It took 5 years for the right parts to arrive, and they're still more expensive than I'd like, but... now I have them.

Here's v.3.0 in action. (What happened to v.2.0? Also made at lunch today, but with the wrong parts selection; a heat-vent GPS mount doesn't damp vibration like a suction cup mount does, but at that point we'd already butchered both the mirror and the mount enough to make the prototype that to attempt returning them would be futile.)

Note that it works equally well from the passenger side - no more aching necks from constantly turning towards your driver! The model is my cousin Mark, the blurry lights on the right side are the supermarket we cleaned out of green beans (Thanksgiving dinner) several minutes after taking this photo.

I like a lot of things about the design - it looks slick, the picture is clear (thanks to the vibration-damping qualities of the suction cup), it's easily adjustable thanks to the variable-tension ball and socket joint. You can move it from car to car, it's sturdy, the landscape orientation of the mirror lets you keep seeing the driver as he moves his head from left to right to look out windows when he turns. (Well, that and it wouldn't fit vertically at a reasonable angle on a decent part of the windshield.)

There are also things I'd like to improve. I think a convex mirror would give you a wider field of vision without too much distortion. I wish I'd chosen a GPS mount that was easier to attach/detach to windows, so if you're making one of these, make sure you like the unmount/mount mechanism of the GPS holder you're getting. I could use a second, vertically-short-but-horizontally-long mirror for the back seat, maybe mounted above the rearview mirror, though that's a dangerous place to have to look at much while driving. I've tried mirrors designed for watching kids in the back seat that clip below your rearview mirror, but while they provide enough of a view to show you whether one child is trying to kill another, they vibrate too much for lipreading, and don't clear the headrests of the seats... the back seat is still an unsolved problem, in my book. And I wish it were more portable, or at least more put-in-a-case-able, because I want to travel with it.

Anyhow, this is my newest shiny toy. It's coming with me on long car rides, because now there's another little chunk of type-of-experiences in the world that I can have - safe, neck-pain-free conversations on road trips. Sweet.

*I also wished for a widespread portable means of near-instantaneous written communication as a kid, and now I have unlimited text messaging. Oh, how I love the fast-paced evolution of modern technology.