Redesigning household tech

3/18/2014 Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Alumnus Nick Ewalt (BS CompE '12) has worked on innovative home technologies at Microsoft and Nest Labs.

Written by Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

When the Xbox 360 hit the market in 2005, alumnus Nick Ewalt (BS CompE ’12) camped outside of a store with a blanket-swaddled line of gamers and technophiles, all eagerly awaiting their chance to test Halo or FIFA on the new system. It was late November, about 30 degrees, but the teeth-chattering cold certified their enthusiasm.

“There was a lot of excitement,” Ewalt recalled. He was in high school at the time. “I was pretty big into gaming. ... I would say that was a pretty big part of growing up.”

At a career fair, then, during his junior year at Illinois, his interests in hardware and gaming began to converge.

Nick Ewalt
Nick Ewalt
Ewalt happened to meet a Microsoft engineer who was working on hardware for the Xbox One. The product was still top secret, but the engineer was impressed by a project Ewalt had designed in the Digital Systems Laboratory (ECE 385). A few months later, Ewalt was in San Francisco for the summer, interning on that very project.

“I couldn’t tell anyone what I was working on,” Ewalt said. When friends and professors asked, he would say simply that he was working on hardware with a systems verification team, writing low-level software and implementing simulation-based tests. “I couldn’t really be any more specific.”

The Xbox One console was an ambitious redesign. In addition to gaming, it provides an all-around household media hub. A voice and gesture recognition feature allows you to turn on your favorite television show, say, "Walking Dead," by giving the verbal command, “Xbox, watch AMC.” No remote necessary. 

Or you can video chat with your friend who’s studying abroad in France by commanding, “Xbox, Skype...” and then saying the friend’s username. A so-called snap feature even allows you to tile the screen, so that when your friend connects, you could simultaneously look at the images she blogged of a trip to Versailles.

After graduation, Ewalt returned as a fulltime member of the Xbox team and helped take the product through the post-silicon stage, running verifications tests on the actual hardware.

“Systems verification is cool because they’re frequently the team that’s doing things first,” Ewalt said. “They’re the first people that are getting their Xbox to boot, display video, play audio, and all sorts of other things.”

Last December, the Xbox One was released to the North American market, and although Ewalt had no need to stand in line for the product, the lines formed, once again, outside of Best Buys and Microsoft stores across the country. 

“It’s pretty exciting to see it finally launched,

XBox One. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.
XBox One. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.
finally be able to unveil it to consumers and talk about what we’re doing with other people,” Ewalt said.  

The console was given the 2014 Product of the Year for Home Entertainment, which is the world’s largest consumer-nominated award, aggregating over 40,000 votes to determine the best new releases.

“One unique part of the work environment [at Microsoft] was pretty much every Friday we would set up a building-wide System Link game of Halo. We’d all be against each other,” Ewalt said. “And there were some really good players.” About 16 employees could play at any one time.

Since the release, Ewalt has switched gears. Through his network of acquaintances in Silicon Valley, he began working at Nest Labs, a start-up that specializes in smart home products, like thermostats that automatically learn your schedule. While his work on the Xbox One contributed to a device that is streamlining home entertainment, Nest Labs could do the same for other household needs.

One product Ewalt is currently working on — others are, reportedly, still top secret — is the company’s smart smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. A Nest promotional video shows someone, in the middle of the night, taking the battery out of an old-fashioned smoke detector that’s emitting the low-battery chirp and setting the unpowered device on the nightstand. “This doesn’t make us safer,” the video states. “It puts us at risk.”

Nest’s detectors form a safety network. If you're sitting in the living room when something starts smoking on the stove, a nice Siri-like voice will emit from the living room device,

Nest Labs smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. Photo courtesy of Nest Labs.
Nest Labs smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. Photo courtesy of Nest Labs.
“Heads up. There’s smoke in the kitchen,” reminding you to check on supper. Hushing the device is as simple as waving your hand — no precarious stepstool. And moreover, all devices can be monitored from a cellphone, precluding nagging questions like, “Did I unplug the iron this morning?” 

Since Ewalt joined the company at the beginning of the year, Nest Labs was acquired by Google and it is expanding quickly. As integration engineer, Ewalt currently works with a crew of about 30 engineers and is doing similar systems verification work.

“We do a lot of cool and interesting testing on pretty much every of part of the product, including the PCB, embedded software, algorithms, and cloud services,” Ewalt said. “We test the production software for stability, making sure that everything is always ready to ship.”

As an undergraduate, Ewalt did research with ECE Assistant Professor Shobha Vasudevan, and he was also a teaching assistant for several courses, including for Computer System Engineering (ECE 391), which is directed by ECE Associate Professor Steven Steven Sam Lumetta. “[ECE] 391 was a really good course,” Ewalt said. “I tell people that that really prepares you for industry; how coding happens in the real world.”

Now, whether you’re Skyping in your living room, playing video games, or pan-frying bacon on the stove, the devices that Ewalt has worked on ensure that you can do those things more simply.

“It's always nice to work on a consumer-facing product,” Ewalt said of his work at Nest and Microsoft. “So that when you talk about it with people, they know what you’re talking about. But more importantly, it’s cutting edge technology, so it’s exciting to be pushing the limits and doing something that's never been done before.” 

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This story was published March 18, 2014.