Human Machine Interfaces: Where people meet technology

In the past, one might have associated Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) exclusively with process control systems in industry and manufacturing. Picture white-coated technicians in factories, pushing endless buttons and turning multiple knobs to give instructions to a super-machine that the average person had no chance of understanding.

These days, the technology is used in a much broader - and simpler to understand - sense, acting as the interface that humans use to interact with a whole range of machines, from household appliances, to MP3 players, to industrial computers. With the goal to always remain user-friendly while centralizing a control system for the device in question, HMIs act as the link between humans and technology. Let’s take a deeper look into what HMIs are and how they work.

What are HMIs?

An HMI is the part in certain devices that takes care of the human-machine interactions. “The interface consists of hardware and software that allow user inputs to be translated as signals for machines that, in turn, provide the required result to the user,” according to this definition from Techopedia.

HMIs are the interfaces between machines and humans. For example, with Alexa, you ask what tomorrow’s weather is and she tells you. This happens as Alexa starts “listening” after she detects the wake word “Alexa,” and then sends the data to the servers in order to get the answer to your question.

HMIs are often considered as ubiquitous due to their endless applications, and include technologies such as motion sensors, keyboards and speech-recognition interfaces. Essentially, they take care of any human interaction with technology that is exchanged using sight, sound, heat, or other cognitive or physical modes.

These interactions are exchanged based on an understanding of human physical, behavioral and mental capabilities, which means they can “provide unique opportunities for applications, learning and recreation.” Humans should be able to engage in realistic and natural interactions with good HMIs, helping to integrate them into complex technological systems.

The technology’s uses span industries, from electronics, to entertainment, to medicine. HMIs are particularly prevalent in the automotive industry, where they cover everything from basic in-car controls like the heating/cooling system, to gesture controls which minimize the driver’s need to pay visual attention to an interface. In this blog we’ll explore HMI uses in modern manufacturing, smart offices, and senior monitoring.

HMIs are smarter than you think

Modern manufacturing

In an industrial environment, HMIs have countless uses, particularly with the emergence of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things). In this kind of setting, HMIs can gather, process, analyze, and distribute machine and plant data -- resulting in actionable insights to improve operations.

Manufacturing plants are often home to multiple smart devices that help employees monitor production through the use of sensors, instruments, and motor drives. The devices are connected to HMIs through controllers such as PLCs (programmable logic controller) and form part of the connected IIoT.

As the HMIs collect data, they format it and securely forward it to the cloud or straight to an on-premise solution. HMI technology in manufacturing facilitates the close monitoring of production, allowing for immediate response to changing demands. This helps manufacturing teams save on time and costs by increasing efficiency and decreasing downtime.

Not only can this data be used for real-time monitoring, but plant workers can also use it to compare current and past production and make predictions for the future. For example, a technician might want to compare actual operating conditions to a past time where different machines might have been in operation. He or she is able to get insights from the devices, derived from historical data collected by the HMIs, and understand and compare production levels.

HMIs are widely used across multiple Hi-Tech industries, including automotive, pharmaceutical, and food industries. Additionally, in areas in which processes are managed remotely such as oil and gas, HMIs are heavily relied on to send and receive crucial data on mining operations, for example.

The future of HMIs in manufacturing sees solutions that resemble smartphones or wearables like smartwatches becoming increasingly common as mobile forms of HMI, in order to maximize access to real-time production data.

Smart offices/meeting rooms

The smartest offices of today include a number of IoT devices that require advanced HMIs, including Time of Flight (ToF) cameras, sensors, and thermostats.

The meeting rooms of the future will be able to detect when someone enters the room, recognize who it is by using a camera and automatically log them into the system. It will know who is there and that they have the right to make certain orders, with the lights and thermostat responding according to the number of attendees.

For example, a smart conference room might have an inconspicuous facial recognition camera on the doorframe. As people walk in, the system detects when everyone has arrived, and sets up the conference call to dial any remaining participants that aren’t there in person. Let’s say those heading the meeting also want it to be recorded - an intelligent assistant can set this up, ask permission from all participants, and send the transcript to everyone after the meeting is over. None of this would be possible without the HMIs that allow humans to input and retrieve the necessary information.

There are now even smart desks that remember and respond to users’ preferences, such as desk height and tilt, and sync with third-party devices such as fitbits. The desk includes a small touch screen that takes instructions from the user, and uses the data to form the individual profile of that person.

Senior monitoring

HMIs that enable senior monitoring are also emerging to facilitate higher safety levels and give carers and family members peace of mind that accidents won’t go unnoticed. These new systems have a radar device scanning the room which analyzes the behavior of seniors when family members are not around to help ensure safety. The neural network registers certain behavior, so if something unusual happens, such as the senior being in the toilet too long, the system sends a text to the person caring for them - essentially acting as a “Digital caretaker.”

In terms of the future for HMIs, the kinds of interfaces we’ll be interacting with 20 years from now might even be hard to conceive of. Not long ago, Voice UIs felt like a futuristic development, yet today we’re already conditioned to speaking to Siri or Alexa. Just how long will it be until technology can actually read our minds? Mindreading solutions are already making headway and businesses could be set to use them sooner than we think.

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