Getting to market faster with fully featured displays

20 March 2015

Until 5 years ago many industrial instrumentation and test displays were single colour, character text or simple graphics connected to a microprocessor host displaying basic information readouts or, at best, simple graphical representations of data.

Then along came the smart phone, totally re-defining what is now considered the basic minimum requirement in user interface displays with its multi-colour high definition screen, touch control and multitude of graphical screen options to impart information to a user of any device virtually in any way they prefer.

A natural response from any equipment or instrument designer or manufacturer would be to compete on this stage by adopting the latest multi-colour technology integrated with a touch-screen to give their products an “iPhone” look and feel. The solution seemed straightforward: simply increase processing power, install a Linux or similar operating system and fund their product engineering departments migration to develop and facilitate new expensive development systems and recruit experienced engineers to do so. However recent years of austerity had driven these same companies into downsizing electronic engineering departments, outsourcing design skills and de-skilling critical support departments.

So with a seemingly excessive long learning curve plus associated time to market and budgetary risks, it meant that many OEM’s needed a more realistic route to giving their product the GUI that the market was now demanding.

It soon became apparent that, although the physical hardware could be designed in 2 months, the process of writing the application software could easily take 6 to 12 months or even more. ITRON decided to outline a new operating language, drawing influence from the web and traditional C languages, which would reduce the software writing time.

The key facets required were an object-oriented, style-based interpreted TEXT language with a reduced command set, but with an overloaded functionality and 16,000 object high-speed database to retain parameters and reference to graphic and functional objects. This allows the application processes normally found in the host to be readily transferred to the display system so that low-speed comms with raw data can provide rich functionality appropriate for a TFT display to provide the “I-factor”. In some respects the solution looks like a compact browser with the option to store functionality and data locally or remotely.

After a year of development with a key Italian customer, ITRON released its first generation colour display system, the TU series entered the market at 70% of the competition price and provided free development software plus application examples. For £85, anyone with a basic web page writing capability could create an application in 12-15 hours. 

Within the past two years ITRON’s has used feedback from over 200 customers to the complete the iDevOS operating language.  It now includes many of the capabilities seen in office-based software like spreadsheets, graphs, pie charts and slide shows with many communication protocols including those found in MIDI music synthesizers and DMX theatre lighting control - all within about 750kbytes enabling fast boot times of less than 2 seconds. 

Unlike other display systems, users can write their own protocol to optimise communication speed.  All the interfaces can be used simultaneously allowing peripheral interfacing like sensors and scanners to be controlled. A growing library of graphics is available to users of their operating system which is freely available on the company’s website that has been expanded to offer designers as much immediate downloadable technical support as is possible currently, with greater levels of enhancement planned in the future.

One area of support that ITRON offers is the ability to produce bespoke GUI examples to help customers develop fully functional prototype interfaces in a short time.  Storyboards are usually exchanged with the team in Norfolk, who draw on their experience with existing examples, to deliver back a fully-functional user interface for iDevOS customers. 

Modal, one of the UK’s leading music technology design and manufacturers, incorporated an iDevOS enabled TU module in it’s 002 Synthesiser. The module provides the desirable colour TFT and touch-screen interface, while also enabling effective control of peripherals including rotary and key type switches.

Philip Taysom, Managing Director of Modal Electronics explains, “Early in architecting the 002 Synthesiser, we looked for a display subsystem that would enable the compute intensive display management to be handled by a tightly coupled display module and processor. ITRON (UK) LTD’s TU range now takes centre stage on 002’s front panel. The TU enables platform independence as we expand our range of products and iDevOS gives us a development environment that enables the display processor to do more than just control the visual elements of the user interface - reading many of the front panel switches and controllers in real time.”

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