What is Virtual Instrumentation

What is Virtual Instrumentation?

A virtual instrumentation system is computer software that a user would employ to develop a computerized test and measurement system, for controlling from a computer desktop an external measurement hardware device, and for displaying test or measurement data collected by the external device on instrument-like panels on a computer screen. Virtual instrumentation extends also to computerized systems for controlling processes based on data collected and processed by a computerized instrumentation system.

An instrument is a device designed to collect data from an environment, or from a unit under test, and to display information to a user based on the collected data. Such an instrument may employ a transducer to sense changes in a physical parameter, such as temperature or pressure, and to convert the sensed information into electrical signals, such as voltage or frequency variations.

The term instrument may also cover, and for purposes of this description it will be taken to cover, a physical or software device that performs an analysis on data acquired from another instrument and then outputs the processed data to display or recording means. This second category of instruments would, for example, include oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers and digital multimeters. The types of source data collected and analyzed by instruments may thus vary widely, including both physical parameters such as temperature, pressure, distance, and light and sound frequencies and amplitudes, and also electrical parameters including voltage, current, and frequency.

History of Instrumentation Systems
Historically, instrumentation systems originated in the distant past, with measuring rods, thermometers, and scales. In modern times, instrumentation systems have generally consisted of individual instruments, for example, an electro-mechanical pressure gauge comprising a sensing transducer wired to signal conditioning circuitry, outputting a processed signal to a display panel and perhaps also to a line recorder, in which a trace of changing conditions is inked onto a rotating drum by a mechanical arm, creating a time record of pressure changes.

Even complex systems such as chemical process control applications typically employed, until the 1980s, sets of individual physical instruments wired to a central control panel that comprised an array of physical data display devices such as dials and counters, together with sets of switches, knobs and buttons for controlling the instruments.

The introduction of computers into the field of instrumentation began as a way to couple an individual instrument, such as a pressure sensor, to a computer, and enable the display of measurement data on a virtual instrument panel, displayed in software on the computer monitor and containing buttons or other means for controlling the operation of the sensor. Thus, such instrumentation software enabled the creation of a simulated physical instrument, having the capability to control physical sensing components.

Creation of Virtual Instrumentation
A large variety of data collection instruments designed specifically for computerized control and operation were developed and made available on the commercial market, creating the field now called "virtual instrumentation." Virtual instrumentation thus refers to the use of general purpose computers and workstations, in combination with data collection hardware devices, and virtual instrumentation software, to construct an integrated instrumentation system; in such a system the data collection hardware devices, which incorporate sensing elements for detecting changes in the conditions of test subjects, are intimately coupled to the computer, whereby the operations of the sensors are controlled by the computer software, and the output of the data collection devices is displayed on the computer screen, in a manner designed in software to be particularly useful to the user, for example by the use of displays simulating in appearance the physical dials, meters and other data visualization devices of traditional instruments.

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