Thursday, August 11, 2011

Keeping Austin Weird

Quanser partner National Instruments (NI) of Austin, Texas, holds an annual conference called NI Week. Truth be known, it's the biggest Nerdfest in the universe. This year did not disappoint with almost 4,000 attendees all there to celebrate data acquisition, instrumentation, and hardware in the loop (HIL) simulation. As a cohesive group, we did justice to Austin's whimsical slogan "Keep Austin Weird".

I've attended NI Week in other contexts in the past. This was my first flying the Quanser colors (red to be precise), and the first time that I saw how our technology plays nicely with the industry leaders in instrumentation. The context was our NI line of products including various QNET control plant devices that snap onto NI's popular ELVIS II platform and a concept product that we produced to illustrate the potential of virtual plants in control education, working on the slick NI myDAQ platform.

Ultimately the goal will be to precisely replicate virtually all of the rich experiences that a student could have in a real lab on campus, but in the more comfortable and accessible surrounds of his or her dorm room or a favorite coffee shop. We showed our super-duper top secret prototype -- cleverly named "myPlant" and it definitely caught peoples' attention. You'll be hearing a lot more of the technical details of this concept as time goes on but I was definitely impressed with an amazing educational scenario that this innocent looking device foretold.

Basically, the combination of myDAQ and myPlant allows you to do real engineering anywhere, anytime. Real I/O, realtime, real cool! Main difference is that with myPlant, you would be working with a virtual plant delivered via the myPlant device complete with an amazingly real animated visualization -- but all of the design thinking is 100% real engineering. The technical term is Model In the Loop (MIL) vs. Hardware in the Loop (HIL) but the loop part is the same. So once you've done your clever engineering thinking and designing and first set of tests, while sipping an ice latte at the Starbucks, you can go your campus lab, flip a switch in LabVIEW, and voilĂ ! You're ready to validate your design and compare results. This in all senses, is a complete engineering workflow.

Most of the profs and students who saw the demos simply "got it" and indeed the word spread pretty fast and it was difficult to find a moment of peace during the four days. The few who didn't get it seemed not so much opposed to the idea but more uncertain of the possibilities. Much like Austin the city, they suspected that there was something genuinely special in the concept under the somewhat unconventional (or weird) workflow. So special, that even these sceptics went to the trouble of dragging their colleagues over to the demonstration to get a second opinion. In many ways, this is not too unlike the experience of discovering Pete's Dueling Piano Bar on East 6th Street and a very good start, IMHO, to the eventual introduction of a uniquely modern and effective solution for control education.

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