German Conference Shows HMI Technology Potential

Nov. 1, 2011
Keyboard, mouse and touchscreen dominate the realm of human interfaces to machines. Once again the world of information technologies could be a valuable provider of ideas for automation.

Modern touch displays, such as those used on smart phones or tablets, show new opportunities for interfacing with computing devices. Gaming consoles also offer good material for new ways to interact with machines. The conference “Mensch und Computer” (human and computer) in Chemnitz, Germany dealt with these topics, as well as other technologies concerning human behavior towards computer.

More and more complex machines need to be used more easily. New operational concepts are needed, not only for operations, but for commissioning and maintenance as well. It’s worth thinking about new concepts for computing device interfaces.

Operation by touchscreen was the last big step in the human machine interface (HMI) technology. I still remember the first models very well, which required strong impact to accept an input. Since then, the quality of touchscreens has improved remarkably, but those possibilities are far from being fully used in the industrial sector. Compared to most consumer products, most control concepts from automation specialists lag behind. Anyone who has used a computer or smart phone with gesture recognition will want to act the same way on every computer or computer-similar machine. I often find myself trying to “swipe” an older PC to scroll through a document. A huge potential for machine operation is hidden at this point.

At the “Mensch und Computer” congress, it was interesting to see how often Microsoft’s Kinect console was used as an example. The device consists of a camera, a microphone, a depth sensor and a pedestal with an electric motor that aligns the device with the player. With Kinect, the Xbox game console can be controlled completely without a typical controller. In some lectures, practical demonstrations of what’s already possible with this human machine interface were shown. In a virtual dressing room, the proportions of a person were scanned by Kinect to dress this person in different clothes on a monitor. Another example was the controlling of a helicopter model by a person’s movements. On the basis of this example, the limits of the technology were also apparent: It wasn’t possible yet to make the helicopter fly completely independently.

Learning from gaming

Despite these restrictions, the control concepts of gaming consoles can provide good examples to automation. A producer of robot control, for example, can work on a solution for robot teaching that is quite similar to the Wii’s input unit. One of the lectures at “Mensch und Computer” posed the question, “Is it possible to have the same fun handling business software as it is handling gaming console software?” The answer wasn’t clear. But one thing was clear in Chemnitz: Consumer high-tech products are very inspiring for sometimes too-sober business users.
Maybe it’s time for a congress titled “Mensch und Automatisierung”—human and automation”.

Martin Buchwitz, [email protected], is editor of SPS Magazin in Germany.

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