How features from the consumer electronics world are increasing T&M user efficiency

4 mins read

The chances are that you own some sort of consumer electronics – a camera, smartphone, tablet or similar device. Just like the PC increased productivity, consumer electronics have allowed users to be more efficient and to accomplish tasks more quickly.

Developers of test and measurement equipment – oscilloscopes, spectrum analysers and function generators – are no different in their focus on making users more efficient. And the proliferation of 'smart' devices has begun to influence the design and use of T&M equipment. Ten years ago, most people wouldn't have expected today's phones to be a screen with a few buttons. But there are some things that touch does better than knobs and buttons. Whilst oscilloscopes have had touchscreens for some time, there has been a big push of late to make them more usable and to enhance the user experience, rather than being a backup when a mouse wasn't available. To be truly useful, a touchscreen must be sensitive and easily driven by a finger. These challenges have been solved in two ways: • Capacitive touch screens are more sensitive and easier to use than the resistive touch screens found in many pieces of test equipment. • Oscilloscope user interfaces are being designed with touch in mind. Some have been designed from the ground up to be driven by touch, whilst others have been designed to toggle between a touch or mouse driven interface. Touch enables new capabilities like zone triggering, where you draw a box around the signal of interest to trigger the scope. Whilst you could do that with something like a mouse, a sensitive, well designed touch interface lends itself perfectly to zone triggering. These same benefits enable things like multitouch capabilities and gestures. Although you can use knobs to scale a waveform, something like multitouch makes it easy to scale the waveform across the entire graticule to maximise the A/D converter resolution or to use a flick gesture to scroll through a waveform. Meanwhile, oscilloscopes continue to feature larger displays. Why? They are, first and foremost, viewing tools and a larger display makes it easier to see information and is an important part of making a GUI 'designed for touch'. Another example how consumer electronic capabilities are being adopted in test equipment is the use of applications – apps – to tailor devices to a specific job. Not too long ago, an oscilloscope was seen as a general purpose test tool. Whilst update rates of more than 300,000 waveforms per second and capabilities like colour grading have helped advance scopes as a viewing tool, apps allow them to do even more. Let's take, for example, a translation application that you add to your smartphone to make it easier to understand foreign languages whilst travelling. You could carry a book, but having a phone that can listen and translate for you is easier and more efficient. Apps on your oscilloscope accomplish the same task. Years ago, you could have counted 1s and 0s to decode your CAN bus manually, but today's oscilloscope apps decode the bus for you – and do it with hardware acceleration in order to maintain the fast update rates that enable general purpose viewing. Many people still use the GPIB to connect to their T&M equipment, but connecting via LAN is becoming more common. Having an oscilloscope as part of the Internet of Things allows it to provide advanced capabilities. For example, it can email you when it triggers or fails a test. You can even set the scope up to email you a screen shot or setup each time you push a button. In addition, when an oscilloscope is connected to the internet, you can often access and control it from your phone or tablet. Smartphones often replace many different pieces of equipment – they can be a phone, calendar, camera, navigation system and so on. The idea is that, as you typically have your phone with you, it can be used for things beyond phone calls. There is a similar trend within oscilloscopes. Oscilloscopes are often the main piece of test equipment on the bench, so integrating additional products can increase efficiency. Integration means more than including another piece of equipment in the same frame – it means the sum of the two parts is more than they would be alone, just like having a camera with GPS. For almost 20 years, oscilloscopes have been able to time correlate analogue and digital channels; Fast Fourier Transforms (FFTs) to show frequency domain information have been available for even longer. But, recently, several new integration capabilities take scopes a step further. The integration of a function generator inside a bench top scope is a relatively recent development. The ability to generate from one box a stimulus using the function generator and to see the response on the scope is powerful. By integrating them in one box, it is easier to capture a waveform and transfer it to the function generator using a few button pushes. The large display can be used to edit the waveform easily, particularly using a touch interface designed for editing an arbitrary waveform. A more recent development is the ability to use a scope probe to make simple digital voltmeter measurements. When ultimate accuracy is not required, a scope channel dedicated to checking voltage rails and signal frequency can speed debugging because you don't have to pull out another piece of equipment and set of probes. Documentation has been a requirement for decades, but it is an easier task today. Much like the film camera has been replaced by the camera in your phone, people rarely need to hook up a printer to their scope, print the screen, paste it into a notebook and add pertinent information by hand. Today, touch the screen and a keyboard pops up for you to annotate the waveform. You can add multiple call outs with annotations, then save the screenshot to a USB drive and add it to a document. You can even set the scope up to email you screenshots, setups and waveform data at the touch of a button. Recently, smartphones have added voice recognition, a benefit when your hands are busy. A similar model exists for scopes, particularly when the scope is being used for board turn on or general debug. Often, the user's hands are holding probes, which makes things like changing the scale or asking the scope to autoscale difficult – you either have to put down the probe or find a probe holder. There was an oscilloscope that tried to solve the 'occupied hands' problem by speaking to it via a headset. Advancements in microphone technology, noise cancellation and word recognition mean controlling today's scopes through voice is easy and accurate. You don't need a headset and you don't need to speak English only and hope the scope understands. Consumer electronics has infiltrated every part of our lives and the capabilities used are enabling features that have not been previously possible in T&M equipment. Richard Markley is an oscilloscope product planner with Agilent.