For smart home interiors with a modern technology infrastructure, there are techniques in both design and build where multiple systems are directed to work in concert with each other to sense activity and usage along with current environmental factors and to take action to achieve greater efficiency and lower consumption of energy and water resources. While there are innovative physical site design methods coming into common practice that optimize efficiency for attributes such as solar orientation and reflectivity, prevailing wind directions and vertical slope and levels, it is the more powerful hardware and software technology being brought into the home that makes the connected environment smarter and more adaptive to seasonal changes and human needs.
As a part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Tuttle.
Robert Tuttle is Executive Technology Director in the Austin, TX studio of frog, a leading global design and innovation firm and a company of Altran, now part of the Capgemini Group.
As Executive Technology Director at frog, Robert Tuttle is a leader in the experimental design and product delivery practice which specializes in accelerating the creative process with collaborative experimentation, ideation, prototyping, and validation of emerging technologies through platform insights and software code. With over 25 years of experience as a developer, architect, hacker, inventor, problem solver, and team leader, his portfolio of work represents a breadth and depth of technical expertise and passion for delivering innovative user experiences.
He has led technology strategy, venture building, R&D, prototyping, architecture, and software development programs targeting web, mobile, desktop, embedded device, and Zero UI platforms for clients such as Microsoft, Intel, HP, AT&T, FOX Sports, Halliburton, and DARPA and actively maintains hands-on technical skill and knowledge to provide strategic guidance and best practices across many platforms and frameworks from Microsoft, Google, Apple, and others. Prior to joining frog in 2004, Robert held technology and engineering leadership positions at United Devices, a grid supercomputing software provider for life sciences research, and at Dell as chief architect and patented inventor for its award-winning online support portals. Representing the design technology practice at frog, he has presented workshops, talks, and panel discussions on the multidisciplinary creative process at conferences including SXSW Interactive and Microsoft MIX. Robert is also an award-winning and critically-acclaimed classical clarinetist performing regularly in professional orchestras and as a soloist and chamber musician in his hometown of Austin, Texas.
He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Texas and a Master of Music degree from the University of Michigan but holds no computer science or equivalent degree after having been self-taught in his current creative technology career.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I have always had a passion and a talent for combining creative experimentation with emerging technologies, and my career path has reflected that desire to envision and make new things that people have not experienced before. I have a background in classical music on the clarinet and my performance style was one of breaking the traditional norms and patterns. At the same time, I developed expertise in the technologies of the early web when there were no manuals or best practices to build sites and applications. It was mostly trial and error or what I call “creative engineering.” I found that there was a lot of similarity in the gratification I felt in finding a novel solution to a hard technical challenge or in delivering a performance that helped an audience feel the music and composer’s intent in a new way. I have had the fortunate opportunity to make the focus of my career squarely at this intersection of art and science, or more specifically design and technology.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
For the SXSW Interactive festival in 2014, I presented a session in the emerging technologies category, where I combined multiple layers of biometric, biomechanical, computer vision, and audio sensing and analysis to create an augmented reality view of what it takes for a professional musician to deliver a high-quality live performance (with a ridiculously fast virtuoso piece with a string quartet). I rigged myself up with a biometric vest that tracked heart rate, respiration and body movement. I combined that with computer vision trained on my hands to measure the fine-grained motion of my finger movements on the instrument. In parallel, I integrated real-time audio analysis that tracked pitch accuracy, tempo and phrasing compared to the musical score I was performing. All of that was combined into a visual dashboard projected on the stage behind me that allowed the audience to see deeper into the performance through a sort of “x-ray vision” I created for them. While it was definitely not something that would start showing up in concert halls for professional performances, I did end up turning the technology into a training platform that musicians could use to analyze and optimize the physicality of their musicianship, similar to how athletes measure and improve their performance. I was able to bring the maximum skill and experience from both my music and technology backgrounds to bear for the first time and it was crazy.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from?
In my creative technology career, as soon as I started to always say and believe “yes, there is a way” versus “no, it can’t be done,” I was able to engage in meaningful collaboration to solve problems and produce successful outcomes. In my role, I like to think I have helped designers and engineers work better together by being receptive to explore alternate solutions and opportunities, as opposed to digging in on technical constraints or inflexible designs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have had so many positive influences along my personal journey that have come through “micro” moments of guidance and support that have built up over time. To make a comprehensive list, I would have to go back to over 300 years ago and start with the composer J.S. Bach and his ability to combine absolute technical precision in musical counterpoint with some of the most uplifting and inspirational qualities ever produced. I believe my passion for bridging music and technology stems from making this personal connection to his music.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why is was so resonant with you?
To be honest, I am too busy creating, making and breaking things with any and all new technologies to sit still long enough for books or podcasts. I believe the best way to really think is to actually make what’s in your head and heart.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It might be a little on the nose to quote Einstein as a favorite, but his belief in using intuition and inspiration to direct his work pretty much sums up the approach I take to my work and life in general. In response to an interview question, he once said: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Homebuilding in the US has grown tremendously. We’d love to hear about some of the new trends and techniques that are being used to build the homes of the future.
Two of the most important trends in home design and building today are the embracing of smart home technology as part of the “digital foundation” for the architecture and the use of a multi-disciplinary integrated design process that looks at the physical, digital and emotional qualities that drive better decisions for sustainability and performance.
Can you share a few methods that are being used to make homes more sustainable and more water and energy efficient?
For smart home interiors with a modern technology infrastructure, there are techniques in both design and build where multiple systems are directed to work in concert with each other to sense activity and usage along with current environmental factors and to take action to achieve greater efficiency and lower consumption of energy and water resources. While there are innovative physical site design methods coming into common practice that optimize efficiency for attributes such as solar orientation and reflectivity, prevailing wind directions and vertical slope and levels, it is the more powerful hardware and software technology being brought into the home that makes the connected environment smarter and more adaptive to seasonal changes and human needs. For example, when the HVAC, the plumbing and the windows can all talk to each other, share data about the current environment and usage patterns, and take action, the home as a whole can perform better and manage valuable resources. Additionally, from a computing aspect in the design process, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities are being employed to help analyze and improve architectures from a layout, airflow and space optimization perspective, with a goal of reducing the amount of raw materials used during build and the resources consumed over the lifetime of ownership.
There is a lot of talk about Smart Homes. Can you tell our readers a bit about what that is, what that looks like, and how that might help people?
A smart home is one that has been built or retrofitted to support intelligent monitoring and automation that can help deliver on the promise of better energy savings, security, safety, comfort and/or convenience according to the homeowner’s needs and desires. The “smart” aspects really come to life and deliver this value through the connections made and choreography of the human experience managed across the many devices, appliances and systems in the home.
Most people think about remote-controlled locks, lights, cameras and/or thermostats along with a smart speaker and voice assistant from Amazon, Google or Apple as the scope of what makes up a smart home. But there are many more capabilities and benefits to be found in the current ecosystem of hardware products and platform services available to home builders and owners. For example, smart vents, fans, shades and humidifiers can work in tandem to help regulate climate zones and air quality throughout the home based on current and projected occupancy patterns. For keeping flooring and surfaces clean based on usage tracking, robotic vacuums and UV light sanitizers can be activated on demand. Many new appliances installed and tied into a home’s electrical grid and/or water systems can be more effectively monitored and optimized for efficiency. Even the building materials themselves are becoming “smart” in a sense with products like air-purifying hardwood flooring and anti-microbial self-cleaning tile.
Every room in the house is now reachable by the innovation in smart home technology. Smart kitchens can help us prepare food and make meals of higher quality more efficiently and safely. Smart bedrooms can help support healthier sleep patterns through lighting, sound and aroma. Smart home offices and living spaces can sense and react to context shifting among family members in the home to help promote better work-life balance within the current and post-pandemic norms.
Even better news with all of the advances made in smart home technology is that it is also becoming much more affordable and easier to understand and manage for the average home buyer or owner. Most designers and builders are now integrating standard smart home infrastructure components by default, leaving owners with an extensible platform on which to customize their desired features and experience.
Aside from Smart Homes, can you talk about other interesting tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes today?
With homes now in many cases being pressed into service as full-time workplaces and schools, innovation is happening at a rapid pace in the digital technology space to create powerful tools and platforms for remote collaboration and telepresence that can adapt to the fluid living environments where the lines between work, school and life are often blurred. In parallel, room designs are incorporating modular built-in furniture pieces, appliances and mechanical fixtures that can transform themselves between home office, entertainment and sleep modes on demand to help people make the important transitions between work and play within the same space. We are starting to see the transformation of the home design and building industry become more integrated across multiple disciplines including architectural, engineering, environmental and technological expertise, with a focus on achieving “more with less.” Such integrated design shows that sustainability and a higher standard of living don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Can you talk about innovations that are being made to make homes more pet friendly?
Many of the same advancements in smart home technologies apply to our animal companions living within and around our walls. Feeding times can be regulated and automated with more reliable and safe devices on the market. RFID collars can provide more pet independence for entry and exit along with location tracking and geofencing in and around the home. An integrated and holistic design process for a new home build or remodel that treats pets as first-class citizens of the household is key to selecting and integrating the appropriate amount of technology without creating stress or anxiety for the animals.
How about actual home construction materials? Are there new trends in certain materials to address changes in the climate, fires, floods, and hurricanes?
The use of recycled building materials and engineered wood alternatives that are more durable while still delivering a positive aesthetic quality is growing and becoming more accepted by home buyers for sure. With the advancements of large-scale 3D printing and AI-enabled computer vision to inspect and analyze details beyond the human eye, there are new higher-precision construction techniques becoming available that can achieve greater strength and stability in a home build with lower-cost materials.
For someone looking to invest in the real estate industry, are there exciting growth opportunities that you think people should look at more carefully?
Smart home platform providers, builders and integrators that embrace a more holistic physical plus digital experience approach are worth paying attention to as the demand for more intelligent and flexible spaces is only going to increase given how decentralized our work, our school and our lives are becoming.
Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
I believe housing instability, especially in urban locations, is affected in large part by mismanagement in planning and limited affordable options where reasonable access to work is available. It may be too simple of an equation, but more often than not you can’t find a shelter without work and you can’t work without a shelter. I found this article from Bloomberg CityLab to be very enlightening on the history and current problem of homelessness: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-07-06/why-is-homelessness-such-a-problem-in-u-s-cities
Is there anything that home builders can do to further help address these problems?
The trend of high-quality tiny home building is certainly gaining traction as one potential solution to address housing instability. Cost, quality and property space requirements are all important factors for success. It is amazing how designers and builders are creating comfortable, functional and inviting spaces with modular components inside small footprints that still deliver a sense of “home.”
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’ll just echo a sentiment similar to that of the founder of the company I have worked for almost 17 years now, Hartmut Esslinger, who defined his design approach as “form follows emotion” (in contrast to the classic “form follows function” principle). Being able to keep the human experience and the emotional connection at the center of everything we invent and build as a society will invariably deliver the most amount of good to people who need solutions for everyday challenges.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best channel to follow what I and my colleagues at frog are thinking, feeling and saying is on our Design Mind blog at https://www.frogdesign.com/designmind. I can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/roberttuttle/