Test instruments advance fool-proof user interfaces
The electronics industry has especially been keeping pace with technological change. With the laboratory measurement equipment segment, this change is most prominent in user interfaces where touch screens replace conventional buttons, and context-sensitive user guidance makes voluminous manuals redundant, according to Tektronix EMEA Technical Marketing Manager Peter Backmayr.
There are more or less two reasons why lab instruments become more user-friendly: First, many systems have reached the physical limits to further improve test accuracy and sensitivity—once an ampere-metre can measure in the attoampere range (10 by the power of minus 18), it does not make much sense to further increase the sensitivity, Bachmayr said in an interview with EE Times Europe. As a consequence, manufacturers seek to differentiate themselves through better and more intuitive user guidance.
There is indeed a necessity to implement ease usage and provide HMI concepts that can be understood also by non-experts. "Today, new groups of users are getting into contact even with sophisticated measurement equipment", Bachmayr said. Whereas in earlier times only development engineers, in some cases even particularly qualified test engineers were using the instruments, the situation has changed significantly: Measurement instruments are increasingly entering new environments beyond electronics development laboratories and manufacturing test sites.
Today, measurements are performed in many sciences from physics to biology, chemistry, medicine and more. For this reason, measurement instrument designers cannot anticipate that all users are experts; and hence they need to simplify the use of even sophisticated instruments. As a result, future instrument generations will feature context-sensitive and more comfortable user interfaces. Instrument designers take up user interface trends from the IT and consumer markets—instead of a dedicated display screen at the instrument, the screens of PC monitors and tablet computers are utilised to display measurement results from a simple voltage value to complex FFT results. In some cases, even a smartphone app is available to enable a user to watch the measurements on his mobile phone. "There is a clear trend towards 'app-ification' of measurements", Bachmayr explained.
This trend does not end in simply allowing external display devices to access the measurement instrument. The next logical step is embedding the measurement results into a web site and accessing them with a standard web browser. This enables remote measurement applications: In field service and maintenance situations, the service local engineer can call in an expert from the development department to resolve tricky problems. "Through these technologies, instrument manufacturers can cut their time-to-market for new products", says Bachmayr.
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