Archive for March, 2015

Doll House Intro

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

During November and December, 2014, I spent a lot of time and energy on a work-related project. As is often the case (see, e.g., most of the postings on this site), I wanted to capture the events for my own amusement and possibly for the entertainment of a few others (perhaps including you!)

I’ve divided the story into multiple parts as a courtesy to the casual reader.

  • This posting, a short, mostly non-technical summary of the project.
  • A four-minute-long “video scrapbook”, From Vision to Vegas: Foundry Support for the 2015 Developer’s Conference.
  • A considerably lengthier document called Doll House Timeline, which contains just about every technical detail of the project that I could remember. The Timeline, too, is divided into manageable pieces for your sanity and mine.

For the story to make sense, you need some background information.

Background 1: The Dog House

dog house

The Dog House

The AT&T Foundry in Atlanta opened in August, 2013. I helped design the Foundry, I helped with the Grand Opening, and I built a house for it.

The Foundry is a corporate Innovation Center, currently composed of five individual facilities in four locations: Palo Alto, Plano (2), Atlanta, and Tel Aviv. One of our primary internal stakeholders for the Atlanta facility is Digital Life, which designs, builds, sells, and supports systems that provide end-to-end security, home automation, and energy management.

In 2013 I first discovered that we would be working with Digital Life at the Foundry. As a way to understand more about the Digital Life system, I collected a bunch of their automation devices, and started “playing” with them (my favorite way to learn about new technology). I had indoor and outdoor cameras, motion sensors, magnetic contacts, door locks, keypads, power plugs — the whole gamut. I soon discovered two important things: (1) a pile of devices on a table is awkward to work with (things kept falling over, and off), and (2) I definitely needed more plug strips. Although all of the devices connect wirelessly, and most of them use tiny batteries, many of them still require power supplies. Normally these are spread around an entire house. But when you collect them all on a table….

So I built a little house to mount everything on. It was about 3 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet, on wheels, with a simple gable roof that was hinged to allow access to the devices (and the plug strips!) within. To demonstrate the electronic lock and the recessed door contact, the house included a small door (which took entirely too long to build).

dog presses keypad


I built the basic wood structure at home (because of my tools,and because sawdust), then trucked it to my lab, where I mounted the devices, and finally hauled it to the Foundry so the innovators there could start using it as they innovated stuff. The little house had been at the Foundry less than 24 hours when someone called it the “Digital Dog House,” which, admittedly, it did look like. Rather than being offended, I embraced the Dog House notion, and even took a picture of Jasper using the keypad. (Full disclosure: he can’t remember the entry code.)

Background 2:Dev Summit

The massive Consumer Electronics Show has been held annually in Las Vegas since 1998. For the past few years, AT&T has hosted a Developer Summit during the week preceding CES. Each year, the Developer Summit tries to introduce new programming tools, opportunities, and information to third-party (that is, non-AT&T) developers to help and encourage them to create new applications that leverage and expand AT&T products. Win-win.

The Developer Summit includes a two-day Hackathon, and a one-day Developer Conference. The Conference includes a keynote address from a corporate exec, descriptions of emerging technologies, and announcements of company news of interest to developers. But the real hot nerd action is the Hackathon.

The venerable Wikipedia describes a hackathon as “… an event in which computer programmers … collaborate intensively on software projects.” (Source: Wikipedia, retrieved in January, 2015.) To further clarify, for those unfamiliar with the term, “hacking” doesn’t necessarily mean breaking into computer systems. It really means figuring out how something works, and finding clever new ways to use or modify it.

Like many hackathons, the Dev Summit version includes an aspect of competition, sweetened by the possibility of winning cash prizes. Here’s how the competition works at the Dev Summit:

  • When developers and designers first arrive, they organize into teams and come up with a project to build.
  • Toward the end of the hackathon, a selected group of judges review dozens of team projects, and pick twenty semi-finalist teams
  • These semi-finalists then demonstrate their brilliant ideas to the rest of the hackers and to the judges, who select the top three. This concludes the Hackathon portion.
  • The next day the top three finalist teams get to present their projects to the attendees of the Developer Conference.
  • The Developer Conference attendees vote to determine which of the top three teams will receive the Grand Prize, which is usually one of those TV-friendly, giant checks large enough to be seen from the International Space Station.

But all of this action hinges on the availability of “programming tools.” These tools are often in the form of an Application Programming Interface, or API, which is a set of software instructions that allow developers to safely and securely control selected functions within a system such as Digital Life.

Background 3: The Pi House

At the 2104 Dev Summit, AT&T alluded to the likelihood of creating a Digital Life API for 2015. There was great interest among developers, but 2015 seemed like a long time away.

small plastic house with LEDs

Pi House

As the summer of 2014 began to draw to a close, the Foundry decided we should explore ways we could help support a Digital Life API. As part of that exploration, Virginia, Don, and I discussed a simple way to let teams of software developers experiment with a small set of home automation functions. We came up with the idea of simulating the functions on a tiny, inexpensive computer called a “Raspberry Pi.” Within a few days, Don and Virginia had given shape to the idea, literally, by designing a cute little plastic house. This house would encase the credit-card-sized Raspberry Pi, along with some Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) to represent devices such as an electronic door lock, a garage door, and lights in the kitchen, living room, and front yard.

They called it the “Pi House.” Don drew up a design and made a prototype in foam board, then made a more durable version on a 3D printer. The plan was to make multiple Pi Houses for interested developer teams to use at the Dev Summit hackathon.

But Virginia, a hackathon veteran, became concerned that using the little Pi Houses on a large stage to demonstrate the semi-final- and final-prize-winning projects would be less than impressive. So one afternoon in early November, Virginia coyly asked me if I thought I could build something sort of like the Dog House, except a little bigger. And more appropriate for a stage setting. The idea intrigued me, so I said, “Sure.” Or something like that.

OK, enough background.

The Doll House

After discussing the requirements with Virginia, I sketched up my idea, then turned it into a three-slide presentation. Over the next few weeks, I somehow convinced myself (and others) that building a Doll House in time for the Dev Summit would be possible.

home automation devices on board


Unbeknownst to us, but not particularly surprising, the Digital Life team was also working on their own Application Programming Interface, which they called “Penguin.” They created their own developer “house” called the “Igloo” (because Penguin, I guess) which used actual Digital Life equipment. They explored options for creating their own version of the Doll House, but there just wasn’t enough time.

While I was well into the process of building the Doll House, the Dev Summit planners made the decision to use the Penguin API and the Igloos at the Hackathon, instead of the Pi Houses. They also decided to use the Doll House for the Hackathon semi-finals, and, if needed, for the Final Judging at the Developer Conference. As a matter of note, the Developer Conference is held on the opposite end of the rather large Palms Casino and Convention Center, so the Doll House would have to be shut down, packed, moved, unpacked, and set up within a few hours between events.

At this point, things started to get interesting. All of a sudden, lots of people (not just Virginia and Don) were concerned about details such as

  • How (and whether) the Doll House was going to work;
  • What devices were going to be included;
  • How hard it would be to move; and, most especially
  • How it would look.

Woven into the lengthier Timeline, are my descriptions of the details of the design process, the criteria I used, the unexpected challenges I ran into, and how I solved them. It also describes the hectic final days before the Dev Summit. (Spoiler alert: it got there, and it worked!)

My first key decision was to build the Doll House in my “shop,” a high-falutin’ name for the space in our house that serves as basement, storage area, junk pile, and occasional work space. Over the years, I have collected a variety of hand and power tools, fastener hardware, and other miscellaneous items that facilitate that sort of building task. Plus there is a Lowe’s less than ten minutes away.

Based on my experience with the small door on the Dog House, my second decision was to use a full-size, pre-hung door. This set the height of the structure at just a little over 7 feet.

diagram of doll house design

Initial Doll House Design

These decisions guided my initial design, as shown to the right and as detailed in the Timeline. With the initial design in mind, I started buying parts and building pieces.

Throughout much of the Thanksgiving holiday and most of Christmas I worked on it, with the whole-hearted support of my family, who had figured out that, although they didn’t really understand it, the Doll House was apparently some sort of Big Deal for me.

And while there was pressure to resolve problems, and make it look good, and get it finished in time, I must confess that there were many moments of sheer, selfish delight. The combination of technical, mechanical, electronic, and even artistic challenges and problem-solving made it a fun project for me. It was certainly a deviation from my normal work. While I still managed to keep up with several other projects underway at work, and to practice the EG part for a Christmas musical, the Doll House took most of my time and attention.

It was a fortuitous intersection of skills, experience, desire and enjoyment.

During the building of the Doll House, and many times after, I have wondered what was really motivating me. I’ve come up with a few answers:

  • I had made a commitment, and wanted to meet that commitment;
  • I really do enjoy that sort of work;
  • I’m always looking for ways to be helpful in my job.

Thinking about my motivation led me to few thoughts about how to keep a person engaged in an endeavor:

  • Start with an appropriately difficult challenge,
  • add opportunities for growing and learning new skills, and
  • finish it off with the potential for producing a useful outcome.

I think I’ll close with that. If you’re interested in more, check out the Doll House Timeline.

final photo with some meaningful easter eggs