Software-based, all-in-one instrument for benchtop testing

National Instruments' VirtualBench has five instruments in one device with an innovative software experience. It integrates a mixed-signal oscilloscope, function generator, digital multimeter, programmable dc power supply, and digital I/O capabilities. See online extra interview about design considerations.

June 16, 2014

NI has announced VirtualBench, an all-in-one instrument that integrates a mixed-signal oscilloscope, function generator, digital multimeter, programmable dc power supply, and digital I/O capabilities. Users interact with VirtualBench through software applications that run on PCs or iPads. The device provides the most common functionality affordably and opens up new possibilities for how engineers can use benchtop instruments. (Scroll down for online extra interview about design considerations, along with basic specifications.) 

"Before, I didn’t have the room or budget to buy a full setup for each bench," said Russell Stanphil, electronics advisor at TechShop. "I can now park one laptop and a VirtualBench on each seat, replacing four to five boxes."

Because VirtualBench uses today’s consumer computing platforms, engineers and scientists can take advantage of the latest technologies like multitouch displays, multicore processors, wireless connectivity, and intuitive interfaces. The simplification and increased capability through software leads to more efficient circuit debugging and validation.

Instruments included are:

  • Mixed signal oscilloscope (100 MHz bandwidth)
  • Function generator (20 MHz maximum output)
  • Digital multimeter (5½ digits)
  • Programmable dc power supply (3 outputs)
  • Digital I/O capabilities.

Key benefits of this five-in-one device are that it:

  • Takes up minimal space on a desktop or benchtop
  • Simplifies instrument configuration through consistent, user-friendly interfaces
  • Offers new capability and convenience with a consolidated view of multiple instruments, visualization on larger displays, and quick functionality to save data and screenshots
  • Integrates seamlessly with NI LabVIEW software.

As of late May, planned pricing was somewhat less than another National Instruments integrated device: NI PXI-4070 PXI DMM, which incorporates a 6½-Digit PXI Digital Multimeter (DMM) and 300 V Digitizer. The VirtualBench app for iPad is expected to be available in the App Store this summer.

National Instruments (NI) 

– Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Online extra: A look inside NI VirtualBench’s design process

Chris Delvizis, senior product manager, National Instruments, told Control Engineering that NI’s approach to software-based instrumentation has its roots in the original LabVIEW system design software years ago; now the concept extends to benchtop instruments. VirtualBench, several years in development, takes full advantage of capabilities from today’s consumer computing platforms and mobile devices, designed and integrated for mobility and intuitiveness from the start. 

“We didn’t just write an app to go with existing products,” Delvizis said. 

New customers, beyond those typically interested in NI automated test systems, will be interested in these benchtop tools, helping earlier in their design processes, he said.

Benchtop instruments, as they have added capabilities over the past 30 years, also have added knobs, buttons, and complexity, and now they’re overwhelmingly difficult, Delvizis suggested, explaining that NI integrated a lot of customer feedback before and during its VirtualBench product design process. 

“We saw the opportunity to provide something better. This resolves a lot of pain points. The software interface dynamically delivers content relevant to the task the user is doing. It simplifies the experience, similar to consumer-based apps. We see VirtualBench as a new class of all-in-one device. It’s like what the Apple iPad is compared to the traditional PC. For some functions, the iPad can replace the PC, but the majority of the time, users treat it as a completely different device.”

Plus, VirtualBench can replace a pushcart full of instruments and offers engineers five important instruments, mixed-signal oscilloscope, function generator, digital multimeter, programmable dc power supply, and digital I/O capabilities, in a compact package. The same instruments with the same capabilities from leading vendors would cost about $6000; this list price is $1,999, Delvizis said. VirtualBench also will add capabilities over time, with free software upgrades expected several times a year, he said, similar to smartphone app upgrades.

“It’s a Swiss Army knife kind of instrument.”

While these capabilities are likely to appeal to anyone involved in mechatronic and electronic design, Delvizis said companies especially interested will include those with limited space or budgets who may not be able to afford a full set or many sets of instruments, such as start-ups, maker spaces, hobbyists, smaller CNC shops, academic institutions, and, of course, electronics labs. In addition, the product will put important functionality into the workspaces of those who need it more quickly, rather than having to check out separate instruments, or going down to the lab, and possibly waiting for availability. A larger company could afford to add productivity by giving engineers their own instruments. A University of Houston professor said the new product should be particularly useful for younger engineers, Delvizis said, providing a very familiar software interface.

“This provides customers with a better experience in a wide range of applications,” within the desk area of a tablet or computer, Delvizis said. In addition, it will take advantage of Apple iPad’s memory, display, accelerometer, camera, global positioning system (GPS), and other features, when an accompanying application is available in the Apple App Store later this summer, Delvizis said. 

NI VirtualBench link provides additional information from National Instruments about VirtualBench, including videos.   

Additional specifications for NI VirtualBench

Mixed-Signal Oscilloscope

  • 100 MHz bandwidth
  • Up to 1 GS/s sample rate
  • 2 analog channels
  • 34 digital channels

Function Generator

  • 1 channel
  • 20 MHz (sine)
  • Waveform types: sine, square, ramp, arbitrary*
  • * When used with NI LabVIEW software

Digital I/O*

  • 8 bidirectional digital I/O channels
  • 5 V TTL/CMOS compatibility
  • * Digital I/O not available for Apple iPad

DC Power Supply

  • 3 channels with variable current/voltage (+6 V@1 A, +25 V@0.5 A, -25 V@0.5 A)

Digital Multimeter

  • 5½-digit resolution
  • 300 V maximum input voltage
  • 10 A maximum input current 

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