Two Days in Austin

Sept. 9, 2008
I’ve Never Attended a Tradeshow Where at Least a Dozen Parents Brought Their Kindergarteners to Try Out the Equipment
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

What I enjoy most about my job is hearing what others enjoy most about their jobs. They light me up with their enthusiasm, and I drink in their psychic energy like a B-movie vampire. Slurp. I almost feel guilty. I’ve also noticed many stories have links with others or overlap on common themes, and so my next story often grows from the one before.

For instance, I was in Austin, Texas, in early August to attend National Instruments Week 2008, and once again, I learned a lot more than I expected. NI’s keynote addresses were full of case studies, its exhibits were laced with new and upcoming innovations, and it highlighted the graphics system design aspects of its LabView software. These tools are allowing users to move from text-based to picture-based software programming.

Of course, many companies put on good end-user groups and tradeshows, but at control and automation events, I don’t often see a dozen college-based projects, such as a solar-powered racecar that’s been chopped in half to display its inner workings, or a robot playing Guitar Hero faster than an over-caffeinated teenager. Plus, I’ve never attended a tradeshow where at least dozen parents brought their kindergarteners to try out the equipment. No kidding. Sure,  NI may have an advantage via its cooperation with Lego and their jointly developed Mindstorms robot-building kits and WeDo programming kits for seven-year-olds, but you get my point. Many talk about getting kids involved in science, math and engineering, but few do it.

In addition, during NI’s panel discussion on how to get more youngsters interested and involved in engineering, Ray Almgren, NI’s academic marketing VP, introduced Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the University of Texas’ College of Natural Sciences, who reported on the college’s You Teach program which NI supports. It lets students simultaneously earn a science or math degree and a teaching certificate in four years, and is now graduating 70-80 teachers per year to teach in local schools. Almgren added that 15 other colleges are now replicating this program, and that another 50 are interested in doing the same.

Not content to rest too heavily on the future, however, NI Week also featured many ways that users are implementing its technologies today. For example, researchers at UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing are using NI’s Compact FieldPoint controllers, CompactRIO hardware and LabView software to develop a wireless, robotic and mobile “SensorKit” system for studying rainforest microclimate and fluctuations in natural carbon absorption between the forest floor and the atmosphere at the LaSelva Biological Station in Costa Rica. This research used to require many types of measures going to multiple data loggers from several vendors, but SensorKit can perform all the required measurements on one platform. Basically, sensors on the forest floor and on robotic shuttles moving on wires above cooperate to take periodic measurements in three dimensions and then transmit them for analysis. 

Finally, yet another example of NI’s active outreach involved several staffers, who clued me in to some new-media tools and useful Internet-based technologies. The first is Twitter, where users can post and follow each other’s “tweets” that combine instant messaging and blogging. In addition, they demonstrated that Utterz lets users almost instantly post audio files, such as input or interviews from cell phones, online. Similarly, NI also let visitors try handheld Flip video cameras, which can upload video via their USB port to YouTube or other sites in seconds.

Pretty cute, until the realization dawns that all these tools can be used on the plant floor, within companies and between businesses. I know that real service is a lot different than lip service, but it’s always refreshing to get slapped  by some really good examples like those that NI presented at its annual event.