When Industrial Automation Intersects Video Games

Posted: 16 March, 2021

As long as there have been computers we’ve been finding ways to turn software into entertainment. The result of the innovation poured into creating video games has resulted in interesting ways to interact with and use our machines that are being applied to industrial settings.  Here we’ve explored a few of the ways that industrial automation and modern video games have borrowed from and intersected with one another, and how video games may offer clues about what we can expect from industrial software in the future.

New Input Methods Adapted from Gaming

There are many ways that video games have begun to intersect how we use machines. The most notable correlation between automation and gaming is how we have adopted traditional gaming input methods to industrial automation.

One of the earliest input devices for gaming was a device known as a Joystick, which was originally used in the aviation industry. Its adaptation as an input method for video games in 1967 introduced many budding engineers to the idea of using motion controls to control a virtual object on a screen – first in two and then in three dimensions.  Now, the generation who grew up with this input method use joysticks to control robots, cranes, assembly lines, drones, submersible remote vehicles, and nearly all modern hydraulic control systems.

Jump ahead to the modern age of gaming, and it’s possible to find input methods that are practical for both game mechanics and real-world industrial applications. Games developed for touch-screen devices such as smartphones and tablets have familiarized users with controls that use multi-touch technology to do more than pinch and zoom. Multi-touch technology can be combined with inertia and physics to rotate images or move objects across a screen. In the automation world, multi-touch technology has been employed to help users build and manipulate machinery more easily, operate equipment safely by ensuring that both hands are free of machinery, and operate panels that cannot use keyboard or mouse input methods for safety reasons.

The video game industry is buzzing as they experiment with new input technologies such as virtual reality and motion capture, augmented reality combined with multi-touch, and even eye movement and biometric controls. We are watching as some of these methods begin to make their way to industrial automation.

It’s likely that we will see input methods like hands-free motion controls for industrial settings, where environmental dangers make a hands-free approach safer or more convenient, especially in situations where operators cannot easily operate equipment with heavy gloves on.

We are also likely to see the use of heads-up augmented reality technology and virtual reality as a method of interacting with machines. Being able to move a phone or look through a heads-up device at a machine and see problem areas highlighted by augmented reality could make maintenance much easier. Likewise, being able to operate a three-dimensional machine in virtual space could aid in controlling robotics equipment in inhospitable environments.

Designing Meaningful Interfaces

Video games have always had to convey real-time information in a manner that would instantly make data understandable, without being a distraction to the work at hand. This is where video games and industrial software most closely resemble one another. Many engineers struggle with the task of creating an intuitive environment for operating a machine or process, while also offering the information required in a way that will not distract or confuse the operator.  In looking at the elements of an effective game dashboard interface, it might be possible to borrow what works for industrial automation.

Designing a useful interface isn’t about employing the flashiest graphics. A successful video game interface, for example, may need to include a massive amount of information on several screens to be effective, and unnecessary graphics and animation can distract operators from the ongoing task, just as they can in industrial settings.

Where the best video games succeed at interface design is when they understand the purpose of the task at hand first, and then design their dashboard to facilitate that task at every stage. For example, a game dashboard may need to show character health points or reflect status ailments or warnings. It may need to alert operators to items in the environment or suggest tips for achieving better outcomes when a player appears to be struggling. Most importantly, successful game interfaces must balance the information to the task at hand, so that users are not overloaded with meaningless data, and are able to make rapid decisions with the information the dashboard shows them.

These interface elements are more applicable than ever to industrial settings, where machines are now intelligent enough to provide HMI and SCADA operators with data that can allow operators more control over a process. Key Performance Indicator (KPI) dashboards can be added to HMI screens unobtrusively, in ways that allow the operator to assess the health of the machine during the runtime, and even course-correct if things are trending toward events that could lead to shut-down. HMI screens can borrow other elements from successful video game dashboards, such as triggering alerts, regular automatic reports, and the ability to pull recipes or tutorials from embedded PDFs as needed.

With the exposure today’s engineers have with mainstream video games, we expect to see HMI/SCADA interfaces begin to adopt the contextual information and intuitive placement of that information and rely less on the same sorts of design techniques used for traditional software. Because video game interfaces have to relay information while a task is being completed, there are many useful techniques that HMI application developers can take away from their design.

Developing an efficient and useful interface for a machine isn’t always as fun as a game, but keeping in mind some of the key tools that video games use to track notifications and alarms, manage time and tasks, and respond quickly to incoming data can help you make better SCADA applications in SCADA software like AVEVA Edge


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