Accelerating the evolution of the industrial user interface

June 28, 2016 // By EDN Europe
By Tim Bonnett, Director at Alpha Micro Components
The user interfaces of today’s smartphones are setting the standards for design in other spheres such as industrial equipment.

Techniques such as widgets, colour coding, animation and multi-touch can save training time and reduce errors, ultimately helping boost profitability. More generally, new machinery with state-of-the-art screens can contribute to a better working environment and can also help impress visitors – who may be potential customers, auditors, journalists, or even politicians on the referendum campaign trail!

The challenges surrounding industrial user-interface development are somewhat different, however, compared to the typical smartphone design brief. Not only can the operating environment be considerably harsher, but the screen must typically offer different performance characteristics. For instance, whereas a smartphone must afford privacy, industrial equipment usually benefits from a wide viewing angle so that the user can see the screen clearly from various locations or share information with a group of observers.

Moreover, industrial equipment is typically sold in much lower volumes than consumer technology, so the development costs cannot be amortised over a large number of units. A platform approach to user-interface creation can help equipment designers spread these costs across multiple product variants. Ongoing support costs and revision complexities can also be kept to a minimum. Using this approach, a range of controllers can quickly be brought into the market, taking advantage of modular daughter boards that provide analogue and I/O flexibility to serve differing application requirements.

To help designers leverage platform benefits when creating industrial user interfaces, Riverdi has built a family of TFT-LCD panels using the FT8xx TFT controller by FTDI. All the video processing in these controllers is serviced by EVE (Embedded Video Engine), which combines display, touch and audio into a single chip capable of providing high-quality graphics. The displays are available in 2.8”, 3.5”, 4.3”, 5” and 7” sizes, with options including capacitive or resistive touchscreen, integrated LED-backlight inverter, and Riverdi’s uxTouch technology. uxTouch features a totally flat front panel with multi-touch support, and provides extensive customisation opportunities. The key aspect of using these displays is that the control interface is the same whatever the screen size. This is an important factor that helps limit variant and support costs while offering product development flexibility.

When selecting a display platform to incorporate in a design, the embedded developer must also consider other factors such as the availability of suitable development tools, drivers and reference designs, which can help simplify design-in of the display and accelerate time to market. Riverdi has produced the Revelation development board to help developers get to work quickly with TFT modules based on FT8xx controllers. The board features the STM32F0 microcontroller, and is pre-programmed in-factory, so you only have to connect the module and USB power supply to begin development. Another board, Hermes, is also available, which is optimised for easy programming of FT8xx-based displays directly from a PC. Both boards come with demo firmware, source code and comprehensive documentation including datasheets and application notes.

One of the outstanding features of these screens is Riverdi’s novel approach to enhancing the screen viewing angle. Standard TFT-LCDs can exhibit grey-scale inversion and poor contrast when viewed from non-optimal angles, unless expensive technologies such as in-plane switching (IPS) and