When LabVIEW first appeared, it was a revolutionary form of software based on computer graphics, icons, pull-down menus, and the mouse. Using these features, engineers could develop virtual instruments, program general-purpose interface buses (GPIBs), and create a host of data-acquisition systems without conventional coding.
It's now a ubiquitous fixture in test, measurement, instrument, research, automation, and manufacturing environments (see the figure). In all of its iterations, LabVIEW is a graphical programming language that enables designers to build programs by wiring icons together on the screen. The icons then compile into code that processes the data.
Internally, NI calls the actual language G, for graphical programming language. It's based on two fundamental concepts—data flow and structured programming. G is based on the strong structured data flow model, so it suits a broad range of programming tasks. It can perform low-level computational programming, user-interface programming, real-time systems programming, distributed network programming, and much more.
LabVIEW's real value is its ability to develop virtual instruments (VIs) quickly and easily to acquire, process, and display measurements from sensors and other inputs. With LabVIEW and a PC, designers are able to create their own special data-acquisition system or replace standard test instruments, such as digital multimeters and oscilloscopes, with a few clicks of the mouse.
Also, there's one really neat feature that sets LabVIEW apart from other tools. Designers can acquire and display their data as well as subject the data to a wide range of mathematical processes to analyze, display, and understand it. Then, they can communicate the data through communications interfaces, networks, or the Internet. Furthermore, they can use the outputs of their VI to perform various control operations.
Thanks to LabVIEW's different versions, it will fit into just about any operating system and platform. It's fully compatible with most other programming languages. Moreover, it's extensible. Gradually, the program has morphed into an all-purpose graphical measurement system that's useful in design, prototyping, and final test.
Because of this versatile capability, LabVIEW has been widely adopted by research labs, the industry, and academia. Common applications include benchtop testing, automated testing systems in semiconductor manufacturing and telecom testing, automotive systems testing, medical instrumentation, and industrial automation. Over 5000 colleges and universities employ LabVIEW, and many teach its use as a standard subject.
There's even a special version of LabVIEW for Lego's Mindstorm NTX robotic toys. Kids can use this version to program the robots they build to do what they want. The code that's created gets downloaded to the embedded controller in the robot that works with the sensors, motor servos, and other components. The fact that kids can use LabVIEW to program their toys right out of the box attests to its ease of use and application.