Video game or HMI?

Industrial HMI developers consider how video game technology can change the way operators work with control systems. Video: ABB demonstrates some interesting possibilities.


Consider this situation: An operator has been trying to solve a problem in a dirty and dangerous part of the plant. He or she needs some information from the recent alarm list to help analyze the situation. It will only take a minute to get the data from the control room, but wearing dirty gloves and other PPE will not make it easy to use a conventional keyboard with the HMI. No problem. The operator stands in front of a large screen and simply looks at a process schematic, focusing on the key element. At the wave of a hand, the desired data pops up on the screen. Another wave, and the information is transferred to a smart phone or iPad. Everything is done without even removing a glove.

How does it work? The same technology that allows you to bowl or play tennis in your living room can be applied to your HMI. By tracking an operator’s eyes and hand motions, the system can move a cursor and click without anybody touching anything. Video game technology meets an industrial HMI.

You might think it sounds great, or is a silly gimmick, but ABB is betting that this kind of capability will be increasingly important as companies depend more on control systems to facilitate collaboration across traditional departmental responsibilities, and engagement with younger (meaning more technology savvy) operators. ABB contends that a control system from 1989 may be adequate to keep the process going, but no operator born anywhere close to that year is going to want to run it. And as new operators become increasingly difficult to recruit, prospects will go where they expect to learn the most marketable skills.

At ABB’s user group meeting one year ago in Orlando, the company demonstrated some sophisticated HMI capabilities. (See the video from the 2011 event.) Last week in Houston, we got to see what another year of work in the ABB corporate research group in Västerås, Sweden, has produced. Magnus Larsson and Isak Savo demonstrate the latest developments. See for yourself, and imagine ways you might find the technology useful. Maybe it’s not for everybody, but it is getting closer.

Peter Welander,

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