It wasn’t long ago when system designers needed a dedicated processor to handle robust HMIs (Human Machine Interfaces) with features such as touch control, but escalating processor power and integration has changed that. Today in fact, even low-power Intel® Atom™ processors can simultaneously host very-complex HMIs along with application software for segments such as medical, industrial control, and military & aerospace. For example, Atom-based touch-panel systems consolidate the HMI and application workload while supporting high-resolution graphics and interfacing with the real-world environment through sensors and actuators.
The key to workload consolidation and robust HMIs on Intel® Architecture processors (IA) is both ramping performance and more-highly-integrated feature sets on the processor and in some cases the core logic. Today you will find processors and chip sets that integrate graphics accelerators, and video encoding and decoding while also supporting technologies such as Intel® Virtualization (VT) that even support multiple operating systems on one processor. Intel-VT-based systems can run, simultaneously on one processor, an operating system just for the HMI and a second operating system for real-time control.
Atom processors are especially viable in graphical HMI systems where size and low-power are also important. The processors offer an optimal balance of performance and low-power attributes and feature a growing list of peripheral functions integrated on the processor – minimizing the need for support ICs.
Widely-deployed Atom processors such as the Intel® Atom™ Processor Z5xx series operate at clock speeds as fast as 1.6 GHz. The companion Intel® System Controller HUB US15W integrates a graphics accelerator and high-definition audio. The cumulative power consumption is in the 4 to 4.5W range depending on the specific processor. Newer Atom offerings such as the E6xx and Z6xx series integrate graphics on the processor IC.
Module and system vendors are developing IA-based products that allow embedded-design teams to quickly bring products to market with complex and robust HMIs, the performance needed for a broad array of applications, and support for real-world interfaces.
Consider National Instruments*. Earlier this year the company introduced the TPC-2206 and TPC-2212 touch-panel computers based on the 1.33-Ghz Atom Z520PT. The design integrates a 6-in graphics display with full 640x480-pixel VGA resolution. The Atom processor and system controller IC drive the graphics output. Moreover the systems include a resistive touch screen with 1024x1024 resolution.
The National panels also leverage the fact that the Atom processor supports extended-temperature operations. Indeed you can deploy the rugged touch system in temperatures that range from -20 to 60° C.
National Instruments specifically targets its panel systems to applications centered on monitoring and control. And the company offers design teams a way to implement such applications using modular products that are linked via standard interfaces such as Ethernet and USB.
The range of applications in which the TPC-2206/2212 can serve is broad. At the high end, the panel system could use Ethernet to connect to an enterprise IT system and to link to programmable automation controller (PAC) systems as show in the nearby figure. Most IT managers don’t want PACs and the associated control data on the enterprise network. But the panel computers integrate dual Ethernet ports that allow isolated connections for IT information flow such as system status and real-time PAC control.
In a simpler configuration, a design team could link the panel system directly to sensing hardware via USB in an application without an Ethernet network. For example, National Instruments offers the CompactDAQ family that can connect via Ethernet or USB. Design teams can combine modules with the capability of monitoring temperature, resistance, voltage, strain, and other characteristics. The simplest USB-based CompactDAQ chassis accepts four sensing-and-control modules and measures 6.28x3.5x2.3 in.
National Instruments also offers a number of resources to help teams that are working on complex HMIs. For example, the company offers a webcast on developing an HMI for the TPC-2212 in conjunction with a CompactRIO-based sensing-and-control system. The company also has a webcast on using its Touch Panel Module software to create intuitive HMIs in its LabVIEW graphical environment.
A number of other modular product vendors support similar application scenarios. For example, AAEON Technology** offers multiple families of touch-based panels with sizes ranging to 21.5 in. Indeed the ACP-5212 panel is based on a dual-core Atom D510 processor and supports the multi-touch capability that’s been made popular in smartphones and tablets.
AAEON also offers ruggedized panels, and 7- to 15-in designs meant specifically for industrial applications. The 8.4-in AHP-1081, for instance, is based on a 1.6-GHz Atom N270 processor.
Increasingly the user interface has become a differentiator in systems – even special-purpose embedded systems. Fortunately faster processors with more features can consolidate both the HMI and application at hand. How do you implement HMIs to add value to your designs? Have you used panel computers and hosted the application on the same system to minimize costs? Please share you experiences with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community via comments.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
*National Instruments is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance
**AAEON Technology is an Associate member of the Alliance