August 7, 2009

NI Week: Where NI Technology Gets Real

As NI's newest tech writer, I feel like it's part of my job to experience as much of our technology as possible. In my day to day work, I can do this by talking with developers about the product and learning from them about how the customer might use the new features they're working on. Sometimes I get the chance to see a demo, but it's rare that I get to see the end result from a customer's application.

As I entered the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday morning, there was a lot of energy in the (chilly, air-conditioned) hall. People were flooding up the escalators to get a good seat for the morning's keynote with Dr. T. It was truly amazing to see the community of engineers who are so passionate about their work and about the technology. Dr. T's talk was fantastic, as were the keynotes from the other speakers. What really fascinated me, though, was the multitude of demos set up on the stage each morning.

We got to see robots climb stairs and see a robotic arm offer up a first aid kit with excellent comic timing. We even got to hear the Star Wars theme played on a laser harp:

Each demo showed the amazing range of applications where NI technology can be utilized. On the third morning, the demos highlighted socially responsible uses for engineering innovation, and groups presented their vision of a better future. Mashavu demonstrated their networked health solutions designed to make it easier for people in 3rd world countries to get in contact with a medical professional. Envirofit, born out of CSU's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, showed off their low-cost cook stove that eliminates much of the dangerous pollution associated with traditional cooking methods in developing countries.

For me, NI Week not only showed how the products I write for become tangible systems, but also showed how my work and the work of our developers and engineers can be connected to the rest of the world. At NI Week, I got to really see our technology come alive. Sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of that big picture, so I was grateful for the opportunity to reconnect.

Web LabVIEW UI Builder - Doing Something New with the Help

Wednesday at NIWeek, we took the wraps off of the newest project I've been working on - a way to host LabVIEW in a Web browser, letting you build VIs without installing ANYTHING on your computer (ok, that's not the whole truth, you DO need to spend 30 seconds downloading the Silverlight runtime engine!) Just like Gmail, Google Docs, et al let you access email and spreadsheets without installing ANYTHING on your computer except a Web browser and a few standard plug-ins.

Our model allows you to build thin client VIs -- VIs whose front panels serve up UIs in a Web browser (w/Silverlight installed) and whose block diagrams connect to Web services, running on a remote cRIO/PXI/whatever target, that exchange data with a device you want to control and/or monitor. Up until now you've had to build these UIs in Flash, Flex, AJAX, or whatever. Pretty soon you'll be able to do it using just G! Yes, one language to rule them all ...

After you deploy this VI, you'll get a special URL for it. You then can connect to it anytime you want to view data from/send data to the device (in our keynote example, we used a wind turbine). The key is that you DON'T NEED LabVIEW INSTALLED to connect to this VI and control/monitor the device! You just need a Web browser/OS combo that Silverlight supports.

(Wow, I'm actually getting into a draft of a help topic here!)

I'm the technical writer for this project and it's something that's been very exciting to work on for the past few months. The main reason is that in planning the help system, we are going to be doing some very cool things. Granted they won't be mind-shattering, but given NI's traditional reliance on installing/printing CHMs and PDFs for help topics, the Web LabVIEW UI Builder (WLVUIB ... uh ... no) help will be pretty slick. For example I hope to reduce the time it takes to update the help, and I also hope to shrink the distance between developers/tech writers and users by taking advantage of some community-focused features. After all, you know best how to use these products. You should be able to share that knowledge easily with other users and with NI if you so choose. It's a win-win.

I also hope to bring videos, tags, and RSS into the mix. The overall experience should be more interactive than an installed CHM/PDF file, while still enabling you to find the information you need in order to get your job done.

Not that you'd sign up to use this product solely for the help, but if you participate in the pioneer, you'll get a sneak peek at it, of course! If you're interested in being a part of the pioneer program for Web LV UI Builder or any of the other few pioneer programs we have going on, head over to and let us know.

August 3, 2009

The LabVIEW 2009 Help

In case you're wondering just what we do all day ... or all year ... the LabVIEW 2009 Help system is now available online. It contains the help for the LabVIEW Base/Full/Pro development systems as well as each individual module and toolkit.

Bet you didn't know we have so many LabVIEW add-ons! Did you know we make a toolkit to help you develop adaptive filter algorithms? (You know, like if you wanted to create some noise-cancellation headphones.) Or that we have software to help you validate your code with unit testing? And that's not even counting the add-ons that let you run LabVIEW in real time or on the Windows Mobile OS.

No, I swear I haven't joined the marketing team. I just think back to all the work we put into these help systems and feel really good seeing them online like this for public consumption :-)

Our online presentation is not the most sophisticated way to do things. You can see that we throw our stuff up there as static HTML pages. In this day and age of content management systems, having a collection of documents linked together just with hyperlinks seems pretty outdated. It's a travesty, I tells ya! Fortunately there are people at NI who realize this. I hope one day we can implement something a little more modern -- and that it won't be outdated if/when we roll that system out :-)