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Harold Goldberg

W
hat is a “virtual instrument?” What is a “vir- fined such parameters as voltage, current, and power, and the
tual” anything? A virtual item is one that exists new field of electricity was born.
in function, but not in actual form. Does that Our forefathers developed an electrical technology. They
mean that a virtual instrument really doesn’t generated and distributed electricity, moved machines, lit
exist? No. It exists, but not in the form that we are used to see- homes and offices, and transported goods and materials. It be-
ing. OK, so, what’s a virtual instrument? came increasingly important, as time went on, to measure the
First, a little history. A few hundred years ago, we didn’t electrical parameters they used. They developed measuring
know much of anything electrical. Then came the work of instruments that became more precise as the technology im-
Ohm, Oersted, Ampere, Watt, and a host of others. We de- proved. For most of the 20th century, measurements concen-

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1094-6969/00/$10.00©2000IEEE
sual to electrical and electronics. We developed instruments
to measure the electrical parameters involved.
With the development of transistors, our world expanded.
We were no longer limited by size and power dissipation.
Measuring instrumentation became smaller and less power
hungry, allowing much of it to become battery powered.
There were some well-known companies associated with
our recent history. The names of Simpson, Westin, Ferris,
Fluke, RCA, DuMont, and, of course, Hewlett Packard are
firmly embedded in our instrumentation lore. We must not
forget others such as Tektronix, Keithley, General Radio (later
GenRad), and General Electric, although these are only a
handful of the avalanche of instrumentation makers that repre-
sent our heritage. We grew up, even from our college days, sur-
rounded by these company names.
What did all the products of these companies have in com-
mon? They all were pure measurement devices. They consisted
of power supplies, sensors, translators, and displays. In most
cases, one manually made connections, set a range, and physi-
cally copied a result into a notebook or data sheet. Further
use of the data was not part of the instrument package.
Starting as recently as 50 years ago, the industrial control
field wanted more than just the physical measurement of a pa-
rameter. As a result, rudimental control systems were devel-
oped. Relays were attached to the instruments so that
processes could respond to parametric changes. Soon, the sin-
gle relay grew into more than one, allowing for multipoint
control. Then, rate detectors were added and finally integra-
tors, creating the PID control system.

Division of Labor
There were concurrent developments in other fields. The big-
gest ones were in the computer field. Capacity increased
while size decreased. But the two fields, instrumentation and
computers, remained separate. Then, the microprocessor
was developed, and computational size, cost, and power dis-
sipation plummeted, allowing pieces of computers to fit into
other devices.
Computers at this time were still slow, limited-capacity
machines requiring detailed programming to perform their
tasks. Bulk storage was limited to tape or large disks and
drums. Essentially, computers were off-line instruments. One
used them for further processing of data after first recording
the measurements on disks or tape.
That is not to say that computation didn’t enter the instru-
ments. It soon became fashionable to include computation ca-
pacity in most of them. However, these were special-purpose
trated on electrical parameters, voltage, current, power, devices, custom developed for their specific operations. There
power factor, frequency, etc. were transducer linearizers, Fourier transformers, graphing
and display drivers, and similar single- and limited-purpose
devices. But they, with the advent of microelectronics, pro-
The Electronics Age vided the next level of utility to instrumentation.
The electronics age began with vacuum tubes, radios, and It was still not possible, during the 1980s and early ’90s, to
then, television. During World War II, a plethora of electronics use full commercial computers for realtime applications,
was developed for the military, changing the course of navi- mainly due to their relatively slow performance. Yet, the need
gation, communications, and control from mechanical and vi- for additional processing became more obvious since instru-

December 2000 IEEE Instrumentation & Measurement Magazine 11


ments were increasing in their complex-
ity as engineers became impatient with
mere measurement and display.
It became normal for a measuring in-
strument to accept a signal; condition the
input by linearizing, shaping, band limit-
ing, etc.; and then digitize the result. The
digital output was manipulated in a spe-
cial, onboard processor in order to pro-
vide control or analytical decisions. The
instrument generated the correction sig-
nal and transmitted this to the device un-
der test to control the total function. All of
this had to happen too fast for any but an
onboard, special-purpose computer.
At the same time, the sphere of mea-
surement and control systems expanded
from merely measuring electrical and
electronics parameters to encompassing
all ancillary technologies including the
mechanical, chemical, civil, and medical
fields. A considerable breadth of mea-
surement and control was dedicated to
the industrial field where, in high-speed
applications, lost time was a major issue.
The speed and capability of general-purpose computers ad- all the hardware and much of the general software required
vanced exponentially. It soon became possible to adapt stan- by the instruments for their specific purposes. Moreover, they
dard, high-speed computers to the online applications required were fast enough to work in real time. With the addition of
in realtime measurement and control. General- purpose comput- some specialized software, any laboratory bench computer
ers could become part of instruments. could be made capable of doing what, a short time ago, only
the very special ones could accomplish.
Opening the Windows The next question was, if every standard computer could
A major accomplishment was the improvement in user-in- do the job, why sell the computer as part of the instrument?
terface operations with the Windows-type software. Simplic- Let’s cut the cost and let the customer use his or her own com-
ity of operation joined with increased capability in order to puter and computational capability. The instrument manufac-
form the marriage of computers and instruments. It became turer could supply only what the user couldn’t get in the
the norm for instruments to be developed with embedded general market. Voila! The Virtual Instrument.
subsets of general-purpose computers, allowing diverse So, what is a virtual instrument? A virtual instrument is
measurement and complex manipulations along with mem- composed of some specialized subunits, some general-pur-
ory, look-up tables, and intelligent dis-
plays and controls. There were
complete instruments performing all Other
the necessary measurement and calcu- Processing
lations via commercially available
I I
computer blocks. n n
t t
With the addition of computers and Signal A/D e e
Sensor r Processor r Control
computational capability, the cost of the Condition Converter f f
instruments increased. How do we im- a a
c c
prove performance without adding cost? e e
The answer is also the answer to our Display
original question, “what is a virtual in- Interfaces:
and Control
Ethernet
strument.” No longer were fast, smart USB
Firewire
computers with large memory capacity SCSI
ASCII Manual
only available on special order or spe- GPIB
Bluetooth (no wires)... Control
cially designed into the instruments. and more.
Now, new general-purpose computers
from most manufacturers incorporated Fig. 1. Where is the instrument?

12 IEEE Instrumentation & Measurement Magazine December 2000


pose computers, some software, and a little know-how. The world. With the introduction of some of the newest remote ra-
instrument no longer has to be in one box. Virtual instruments dio communication protocols such as “Bluetooth,” the compo-
can be simple or very complex. nents needn’t even be physically connected to each other. We
Consider what a virtual instrument and control system can go even further than that. Using high-speed Internet pro-
might contain. For a measurement instrument, there must be a gramming, the information can now be passed on to the ‘net
sensor. If the parameter being measured is not electrical, this and processed, displayed, controlled, or distributed anywhere
must incorporate a transducer to change the information to an in the world. This is a virtual instrument.
electrical signal. Then, there has to be a conditioning circuit to It demands interconnection busses, process and applica-
bring the signal to a level where it can be used. This may in- tion software, sensors, generators, and controls. The digital
clude amplifiers, linearizers, filters, and even rectifiers. Finally, system hardware is now mainly included in the commodity
there must be an analog-to-digital converter to allow the data to PC, which doesn’t even have to be sold as part of the product,
be transformed into digital format for further manipulation. just connected to it. As we advance further, more of the instru-
Once the data is in digital form, it can be stored, pro- ment will be included in external standard hardware. As the
cessed, mixed, compared, or manipulated as required. Then, software field settles down, much of the software will become
it may be displayed, converted back to analog form for fur- standard.
ther process control, and so on. Fig. 1 shows a block diagram Understand that the real field of virtual instrumentation is
of such a system. just beginning. Over the next few years, there will be a rash of
Note that all the processing operations can now be found subunits specifically designed for the virtual instrumentation
in a modern, standard PC. And, in most cases, the speed of the market. These will provide the building blocks for the next
PC is easily compatible with the instrument requirements. generation of field instrumentation and measurement.
Developments in local area networks (LANs) allow us to Virtual Instrumentation—a marriage of technologies.
physically separate the computer portion from the rest of the What a way to begin the 21st century.
instrument. Using any of the myriad formats from RS 232 to
GPIB to USB to Ethernet to SCSI, the interface between the Harold Goldberg is a Life Fellow of IEEE. He is Vice-President
components can be balanced for speed. Emeritus and a consultant to Analogic Corporation and
teaches engineering leadership at the Gordon Institute of Tufts
Where Is It? University. Within IEEE, he has been Section Chair, Society
So, where is the instrument? Its various parts can be separated President, Region and Divison Director, and Vice President-
all over the workplace or, using the Internet, anywhere in the Professional Activities.

December 2000 IEEE Instrumentation & Measurement Magazine 13