The human machine interface is arguably the most important aspect of any device that engages with the end user. However in the complexity of the design cycle this aspect can quite often remain under realised. Here Michelle Winny, Editor of Electronics considers the ergonomics of design and why this is forming the basis for electronics of the future

Ergonomics… According to the Oxford English dictionary refers to: “The study of, relationship between people and their working environment.”

Whilst the Wikipedia definition states it as: “The scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system… to optimise human well-being and overall system performance.”

Either way it is a question of the human machine interface and how to create an optimum working synergy between the two.

With the advance of technology and its place in everyday life, the 21st century has taken this concept and not just united the two in an ultimate fusion of human and machine but made it a way of life.

You would be hard pressed to find a situation nowadays that is not touched, infiltrated or invaded (depending on how you feel about it) by the advance of technology – from devices such as the mobile phone to gadgets such as the Sat-nav  to sophisticated control systems such as those now integrated into automotive.

But it is a long journey from the design engineers’ drawing board to the users hands. Getting the key combination of elements along this journey can make or break a device, propelling it from low end gadget to social super power.

Take for instance the latest innovation of the tablet or smart phone. These are highly integrated systems that make portable computing now a lifestyle choice, slicing through the competitive terrain of the consumer market and captivating the audience of a fickle penchant for novelty; and is why the winning formula of interface and usability of these devices, along with the diverse range of apps available to entertain and assist is currently taking the industry by storm. 

So to attempt to master this model, it is the initial stages of concept that must capture the essence of where, what and why the product is being designed to elevate it to optimum user capability. And it is to this astute level of perception and key understanding of the relationship between the technology and the end user that differentiate companies such as Anders Electronics; a company that embraces the mantra of ‘People, Passion, Creativity and Integrity with a core purpose of specifying in technology  to enhance life.

Rob Anders, CEO of Anders Electronics describes the company as being different in as much as it attempts to offer a balance in the way in which it approaches in-depth technical competencies with an understanding and passion for usability, user experience and ultimately the needs of the end user.

“By offering usability through to GUI design and development services, alongside the electronics, displays and traditional engineering, we believe that we can differentiate and truly offer a value add,” said Anders.

However this company is not alone in its plight to streamline electronics with the end user. For instance ST microelectronics has recently announced its participation in a European research project on ‘Distant Speech Interaction for Robust Home Applications’ (DIRHA).

This is a three-year program investigating and prototyping solutions for natural voice-enabled interaction between humans and machines in smart homes of the future.

So taking the concept of the user interface to a larger scale with a focus on the domestic space, The DIRHA project will explore the challenges of distant speech interaction in multi-noise, multi-speaker situations of a home environment.

The goal is to create a pervasive, always-listening sound space, where users needn’t speak into the microphone to get recognised and understood, but the system reaches out, acoustically, to the speakers regardless of their position within the home.

The physical and acoustic parameters of the MEMS microphones fit well within the remit of the challenging requirements of distant-speech interaction systems. As the devices are pretty small in size they allow the researchers to easily embed entire arrays of microphones in the walls, desks, or speech-enabled appliances of the automated home.

But it is the microphones’ mix of excellent acoustic characteristics and sophisticated signal-processing technologies that enable identification and capture of an individual speaker from several meters away, in a crowded room with music playing.

This concept has the capability to dramatically alter the way people interact with technology, and can make a real difference for those who can’t easily move around, such as the elderly or the motor-impaired. In addition to the home scenarios, the distant-speech interaction systems can find use in robotics, telepresence, surveillance and industry automation.

This just scratches the surface of some of the latest technologies being developed in conceptual solutions of the future. The sophisticated capability of current technologies are very much in development right now, but it is how these solutions are adopted, where close attention must be initially paid to the end user, to continue to create human machine interfaces that make the most of technology and enhance the user experience.

Looking back to the era say of the 50’s where technology took its first debut as labour saving devices of the home, but now devices of just about every need are being realised with yet many more to be discovered with indeed the potential to become the next ‘big’ thing so long as the user interface takes hold.