The future of HMI

After giving a briefing last Thursday to one of the world's largest automation companies about the future trends in automation, I went and saw one, and laid hands on it. There is a coming revolution in HMI. Currently, HMI are designed to the preferences of us "digital immigrants"-- we were analog, and then we were digital before digital was cool, but digital is still our second language, and we have funny accents. Compared, that is, to our children and professional successors. They are "digital natives" and they learn differently, interact with tools differently, and from a very early age, they operate human machine interfaces very differently. We use keyboards, ten-key pads, mice and display screens.  They use Wii paddles, game pads, joysticks, and thumb keyboards. We learn from the basics to the more sophisticated. They learn in a more experiential way, taught by video gaming techniques. If they need to find out how to do a particular thing, they study that and learn it. Their learning mode is deeper than ours, but less systematic. And what does this mean for the future of automation? What it means is that the way we bring people into the profession has to change. The way we teach new operators needs to be much more experiential. The way we use engineers must be more high level, and all of us have to become fluent with the new forms of human machine interface. I went to visit an interesting client of Jerry Gulley's on Friday. Jerry was one of the founders of Symbol Technologies, and has been in the automation game a long time. So when he said he had something to show me, I made time to go. I'm glad I did. What I had been talking about the day before was right in front of me. His client has two faces. The hardware end is called Parallel Robotic Systems. They make precision positioning systems for lots of different applications. They can provide precision movement in six or seven axes, as you can see by looking at the video here. They've produced more than just the device. I described the breakthrough of ISA88 to the chief developer at Parallel Robotics, Rob Peterson, as the insight to separate the application and the recipe from the equipment. Parallel Robotics has done just producing a tool-set in software for applying this set of motion devices to a whole variety of different applications... the difference between using OPC-UA and writing custom APIs for everything is another good example of PRSCO's breakthrough. Now how do I get back to human machine interface? Well, the other face of Jerry's client is called Holo-Dek. Holo-Dek is a very high end gaming parlor that will be rolling out all over the country, they hope, soon. What does Parallel Robotics have in common with Holo-Dek? Motion, that's what. In the back, behind the typical gaming parlor rooms, and behind the Wii bowling alley that they've set up for senior citizen bowling on Friday mornings every week, is the lab where they're designing full motion simulators for video gaming. They had a 180-degree screen set up with a 5-point Recaro-clone chair mounted on top of a Parallel Robotics hexapodal motion table. They were set up to fly Microsoft Flight Simulator FX, and it was amazingly lifelike and real, and was set up so that spectators could also watch...sort of like "To Fly" in IMAX. These are automation people building custom HMIs for gaming. Wait until that comes all the way around and they are automation people building custom HMIs for automation. "Will operators want the motion and noise we build into the Flight Simulator?" Gulley asked me. "Do they need it or will they want it?" I told him to ask the gamers if they were working in a process plant, would they want to be able to fly around the plant looking at things, interact as an avatar like Halo or GTA, or in a MMRPG (you are a digital immigrant if you don't immediately recognize that acronym...Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game), or be able to pull up metadata by "reaching out and touching" a device in virtual reality. He said that based on their interviews, the gamers would want all of that...and that he believed that it would make them better and more efficient and observant operators if that's the HMI they were using. So, all you digital immigrants, how's your thumbs?