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issue: January 2007 APPLIANCE European Edition

Control Panels and Displays
Interfacing with the Consumer


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APPLIANCE Staff Feature

Appliance manufacturers are utilizing advanced control panels and display technology to catch the attention of today’s tech-savvy consumers.

It goes without saying that the television market relies heavily on the latest display technology. Catering to the rear projection TV product segment, Osram GmbH (Munich, Germany) has developed the OSTAR Projection RPTV. The company says the efficient high-power LED light source offers vibrant colors and is dimmable. It is also said to have a long life (20,000 to 50,000 hours, depending on the operating conditions) and short switching times.

The control—button, switch, dial, keypad, touchscreen, etc.—is the main interface a consumer has with an appliance. As such, appliance producers usually take great care that their controls support the chosen image. Is it a no-nonsense, utilitarian appliance? Then how about designing in large, sturdy-looking, well-labeled pushbuttons? Or perhaps a company wants a sleek, high-tech product. In that case, try membrane switches programmed with advanced functions.
OEMs can choose from a variety of technologies. These continue to evolve, particularly in terms of the electronics. Touch screens, high-brightness LEDs and capacitive technology are among the developing areas. More generally, taking advantage of the greater electronics processing now available makes it possible for appliance OEMs to program in a greater degree of appliance performance and user choices.

Advanced Oven Control

Among appliance makers using new control capabilities is Dacor (Diamond Bar, California, U.S.). Its cooking products are known for advanced and technologically innovative features, and for their simple but elegant design. This image was reinforced with the fall 2005 introduction of a new line of Epicure, Millennia and Preference wall ovens. These double ovens are said to feature some of the most advanced controls on the market. Controls incorporate a 32-bit microprocessor and advanced LCD display. Embedded programming for 99 recipes is included, and the consumer can add 100 more. The control was developed for Dacor by Schott Home Tech North America (Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.), a subsidiary of the Northern American holding company for Schott AG (Germany).
In 2002, Dacor began talking with several controls suppliers. One of these was Schott, which had long supplied Dacor with glass-ceramic. Schott’s controls facility in Wheaton, Illinois, U.S., produced primarily cooktop controllers. Dacor became convinced that Schott had the best capabilities to develop a state-of-the-art Dacor wall oven controller.
“We knew that the development work on such a project would take awhile,” admits Schott’s Chuck McClinch, director of sales and marketing. “Programming time, especially with all the recipes, was going to be long. But we knew we could do it, and that the controller would increase our credibility in the wall oven controls area.”
George Simadiris, Dacor’s vice president of engineering, says the companies first started exchanging ideas after a 2002 trade show about how a future controller could really make a difference in how people cook. “We looked at what other oven makers were doing, and began working on specifications,” Simadiris explains. “After about 6 months, we began extensive consumer research, which took about a year. We were looking at how we could enhance the cooking experience and enrich customers’ lives. Once marketing had a definition of what we needed, we began the work on the engineering challenge.”
Much of this challenge had to do with software development. “The software requirements were really complicated, especially because of the embedded recipes,” says Simadiris. “It was an iterative, on-going process. We defined the applications, such as which screen would follow which. Schott would develop the software, and we would review it and make corrections as needed. It took some 18 months of development, but in the end we had a control that was robust and user friendly.”
While the software development took the most time, great attention was also given to the control’s appearance on the oven. Notably, the LCD screens are capable of producing millions of colors to catch the consumer’s eye.
The completed control is part of what the company considers to be one of the most advanced wall ovens in the industry, and reinforces its image as a technology leader. “We have a very sophisticated product, but at the same time it is extremely easy to use,” says Mike Laiman, Dacor’s vice president of operations.

A Sophisticated Touch

3M Touch Systems (Methuen, Massachusetts, U.S.) observes that high-end appliances may offer so many menu options that traditional buttons or knobs cannot accommodate them all. As an alternative, touch screens allow consumers to quickly drill down through multiple choices using intuitive menus. By eliminating buttons and knobs, an appliance’s appearance can be more streamlined. The 3M MicroTouch ClearTek II touch systems have glass surfaces and no moving parts, making them durable and easy to clean.
3M Touch Systems’ marketing manager, Alice Moran, reports her company has begun developing touch screen applications for white goods appliances.
“One approach some refrigerator companies are considering is consolidating controls into one location,” she says. “Right now, a refrigerator might have separate controls and displays for freezer temperature, refrigerator temperature, water and ice settings, and crisper drawer settings. You can consolidate all the controls and displays into one touch screen location. By doing so you can save costs, plus the touch control can be used as a design element.”
Further down the road, she visualizes common kitchen placement of touch screens, perhaps on refrigerator doors or on a counter. “The touch screens are easy to use and durable, and they play into the home automation trend. We are looking at different ways the screens can be used in the kitchen.”
The company also recently launched a new technology for the gaming market—the MicroTouch Capacitive TouchSense System. The system combines a MicroTouch capacitive touch screen, Immersion TouchSense actuators and a hybrid electronics controller based on a MicroTouch EX II electronics platform.
According to 3M, the technology makes virtual onscreen buttons feel real. It supplies tactile feedback in response to a user’s touch, creating a more intuitive, engaging and natural experience for the player. With the system, a variety of touch-initiated tactile effects can be synchronized with audio and visual prompts, supplying game developers with a new set of interactive tools for greater creativity.
3M United Kingdom plc recently announced its cooperation with casino slot machine specialist Unicum to develop touch-screen gaming machines that have been built and programmed to take advantage of TouchSense tactile feedback from Immersion. Unicom showcased its first concept machines at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in November.
“The technology has enormous potential for adding an entirely new dimension for the player. It is an evolutionary technology approach, offering something the user has lacked in the past—a physical response to the interaction,” Peter Moffitt, vice president of Gaming at Unicum, said in a statement.
The process of applying TouchSense technology in slot machines was conducted in a careful and deliberate manner. Unicum selected its top-end platform, Sapphire, as one of its first games to use the technology. The game was reviewed down to the smallest details to explore where tactile feedback added value to the user experience. The companies say the result is a combination of visual, tactile and auditory cues to keep the player engrossed in the gaming experience.
Another touch screen technology, printed Segmented Electroluminescent (pSEL) touch displays from Pelikon (Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom) looks promising. Its Intuitive Touch Display offers a flexible, segmented display, with areas of the screen illuminating only when required. The display is in production and available in consumer devices such as the Kameleon One For All universal remote control (see “Application Spotlight” sidebar on page 13). The company also uses the same platform to produce pSEL Backlites and Animated Backlites, and has proprietary drive electronics.
Next year, the company plans to introduce the pSEL Hybrid Intuitive Touch Display, which has full daylight visibility. “This is a major step forward, and will have huge potential in the mobile…displays markets where outdoor usage is a requirement,” says Charlotte Fionda, marketing manager.
“Our pSEL displays offer a low-cost display solution along with the low power consumption,” she explains. “pSEL displays are flexible and, in combination with a keypad or domeless array, allow touch sensitive interaction at a lower price point than capacitance sensing. Another key difference is that the pSEL Intuitive Touch Display offers a segmented display, which can guide consumers through functionality quickly and easily by displaying controls only relevant to the function selected.”

Bright Options

Light emitting diode (LED) status indicator lights and number/character displays have long been used in appliances from stereos to dishwashers to rice cookers. Advantages have included long life, small size and considerable power savings compared to incandescent lights. Now, newer technology has increased brightness and added colors. This has opened new or expanded appliance applications.
Increased brightness, for instance, can mean more LED backlighting of liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Cell phones and other small hand-held devices are now a large market for high brightness LEDs. High brightness LEDs can even provide light for camera phone flashes.
As the technology improves and prices decline, LED backlighting is also finding its way into larger LCDs. The first LED backlight for LCD home TVs was announced in August 2004 for Sony’s Qualia series, which used the Luxeon lit system that Sony said delivered the most vivid colors seen on a TV. The system expanded the gamut of reproducible hues by as much as 45 percent. The light source was jointly developed by Lumileds (San Jose, California, U.S.) and Sony (Tokyo), and optimized for Sony’s TV application.
As for LED colors, until the 1990s, the palette had been limited to red, yellow and green. In 1993, blue LEDs were developed. “By working with the three basic colors, it is possible to pretty much simulate the full color spectrum, including white,” points out William Chu, regional sales manager, Kingbright Corporation (City of Industry, California, U.S.). “You can catch a user’s attention with color, and customize the color to the application. For instance, in refrigerators, you wouldn’t want a red tone, which is a hot color, but something more blue, or a cool white. Not only are we seeing more refrigerator displays and control panels with LEDs, but in the next year or two I expect to commonly see LED refrigerator lighting. This will give more aesthetic control than incandescent lighting.”
Whatever the technology trend, Mike Buchanan, operations manager for membrane switch supplier Douglas Corporation (Eden Prairie, Minnesota, U.S.), cautions that there must be a good interface between the design, the appliance company and the controls supplier. “In some applications, insufficient communication can result in disaster,” he points out. “Fortunately, the controls industry is slowly moving toward better awareness of the process requirements as they work with designers. Companies such as Douglas are asking questions that will help us best meet the end user needs.”
Appliance companies shouldn’t depend on their suppliers to ask all the questions, though. A close, free-flowing relationship, such as that between Dacor and Schott, may be the best way to arrive at the
controls and displays that fit the end user’s needs, while still making a statement.

Application Spotlight

Getting User Friendly Faster

 

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