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Is the end near for analogue measurement instruments?

20 Oct 2014  | Martin Rowe

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Editor's Note: Android- and iOS-based devices are eclipsing traditional test and measurement instruments. Are knobs and buttons nearing their end?

When Oscium introduced its iOS-based oscilloscope in 2011, I believed then that engineers would embrace the smartphone/tablet interface for controlling instruments. I still do. The march in that direction continues with the announcement of the IVy Android app from Keithley Instruments.


Keithley has announced an app called IVy for controlling source-measure units with an Android device.

Knobs and buttons are slowly on their way out. Get used to it. Yes, oscilloscope companies tried using screen interfaces and were told that engineers want their knobs and buttons, especially on oscilloscopes. Engineers claimed that nothing could replace the look and feel of an analogue oscilloscope user interface. As a result, every bench oscilloscope I've seen has the traditional knobs and buttons. But that trial came long before everyone had a smartphone or tablet, and the pinching/expanding motion that we use every day didn't exist then.

The motion we use on our phones and tablets will replace knobs and buttons, but it will take perhaps another 10 years for that to occur. Why? Because there are still too many old-time engineers in the workforce who were born and raised on analogue oscilloscopes. But as the old-timers retire, younger engineers will expect every user interface to function like a phone or tablet. Don't believe me? Just wait. The only reason I can think of why this won't happen is because the current phone/tablet interface might not be around in another 10 years, but knobs and buttons just might be. In that case, I'm sure you'll all say, "I told you so. Nothing will replace knobs and buttons."

Using an Android/iOS device as a user interface will become the standard, and it's not just for "toy" measurement instruments, as many are today. As I reported several months ago, even some oscilloscopes that still bear a mechanical interface now have the ability to use fingers for more than pointing.

It's not just for commercial products, either. Some engineers have designed such user interfaces into their own projects.

The following images provide a look at other test instruments that use iOS or Android devices or similar interfaces.

Red Pitaya

The Red Pitaya is an open-source wireless oscilloscope. In 2013, Adam Carlson described the project in detail.

Red Pitaya

The Red Pitaya oscilloscope uses a phone as a user interface.

BluDAQ, an internal project

Aubrey Kagan (a.k.a. Antedeluvian) designed a wireless oscilloscope/digitizer called BluDAQ. It uses an Android device as a user interface. Why Android? Kagan cited issues with iOS and Apple that Keithley's Ming Wang described in a post on EDN (a sister site). Both ran into technical issues and delays in completing the project because of Apple's review process.

"Have you ever looked at the agreement you must sign with Apple to write an app?" said Kagan. "They want your bank information, your lawyer information and essentially the name of your firstborn."


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