For our client ABB Corporate Research, we created a series of alternative designs to contrast the traditional user interface and interaction design of control systems for industrial application. The Fishtank was one of the incarnations of this series. It is an interactive design exploration in the area of industrial control systems.
Conventional industrial control systems, such as ABB’s system 800xA, present the user with a panel view where machines, faceplates, sensor data, labels, etc. are organized and visualized side by side in a two-dimensional space. This design idea echoes the way in which control panels have always been designed; evolving from a non-digital era when each button, lever, label, and output device was physical and thus needed physical real-estate and a fixed location on the panel. Over the years, “the panel” as a way of framing and thinking about control room systems has formed a very strong conceptual idea for control room systems.
This is true to this day, when—at least in theory—a digitalized, computer-based control system could have any kind of user interface. Obviously, the 2D panel has not stayed on because it is a bad idea—on the contrary, there are many benefits to separating different things in two dimensions and giving them a fixed physical location in space.
However, in this project, we wanted to explore the design space of "the possible" in this area by creating a series of radically different designs. The purpose was not necessarily that the results would aim to replace the traditional control room panel, but rather that they in different ways could come to complement, be different from, and to some extent challenge the panel as a design idea.
A typical problem in modern control rooms is the ever-expanding number of sensors that call for the operators’ attention. Relying on the quasi-physical panel as a design idea, it means that a 2D view of a factory keeps getting larger and larger. To deal with this, you either add more screens to the control room or you let the operators only see a small part of the entire factory on their personal screens.
As an alternative to this, we asked: would it be possible to design an interface in which the panel for the entire factory could fit on only one screen?
The result from this experiment is the Fishtank prototype. It is an example of what we call an “agitational artifact”, i.e. an interactive artifact ideated, designed, and prototyped to be used using real data in real time—but where the main purpose of the artifact is to allow people to be exposed to a hands-on alternative to what they are used to; something with enough of a critical edge to shake them up a little bit, to make them think.
The Fishtank presents the user with a three-dimensional space. In this 3D space, the entire factory resides in the form of all its faceplates. A faceplate can for instance be a representation of a water tank in the form of the name and ID of the tank and its corresponding sensor data, such as water level, temperature of the water, etc.
The three dimensions in the Fishtank, i.e. X, Y, and Z space, are conceptual dimensions that can be controlled by the user. Hence, the user can decide what each of the three dimensions should represent.
For instance, the Y dimension can be made to represent the number of alarms a particular faceplate has; the X axis can be made to represent time since the last alarm; and the Z axis how far from the ideal or threshold each faceplate’s main value is.
But these conceptual dimensions can be changed easily and in real time to allow the user to interact with and play around with the factory to just monitor or to make certain parts stand out.
Unlike a traditional 2D design, the Fishtank uses movement, interaction, and conceptual dimensions—not fixed location in physical space—as the main sense making vehicle for the user. As such, it is radically different from the way in which control room software such as ABB’s 800xA has evolved and provides the user with a very different, engaging, and fun user experience.
While an interactive artifact should be experienced hands-on, the video below gives you an idea what using this system is like.