Matt Tucker is a self-proclaimed “cold-weather person.”

One of his favorite memories as a Hokie is spending crisp mornings with his service fraternity, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, participating in the Big Event, one of the university’s main service initiatives.

In fact, after the graduating senior from Knoxville, Tennessee, collects his degree, Tucker plans to head to Connecticut, where he’ll revel in the cool winter temperatures of New England that etch ephemeral frost designs into window panes and coat landscapes with snow.

And it’s fair to say that his fair complexion will be a lot less susceptible to sunburn than it has been in the previous weeks.

Tucker’s terminal destination in his post-Hokie life is a far cry from Dubai, the Emerati locale where the electrical engineering major spent the previous month as a member on Virginia Tech’s FutureHAUS team that recently competed in the Solar Decathlon Middle East. Under a relentless sun, the sole U.S. team emerged victorious as overall champions in the competition.

“When I visited Virginia Tech for the first time I remember walking through buildings, like Goodwin Hall and seeing the Rolls Royce engine that hangs there and also the Frith Lab in Randolph Hall, and thinking about all of the projects that I saw that address big industry challenges and saying to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to come to Virginia Tech and get involved in something special,’” he said.

Tucker’s interest in technology started as a youngster. His grandfather would sit with him and the two would tinker with software. Those interactions between grandparent and grandchild stoked an interest in programming. As he got older, Tucker would spend his free time and summers working with Arduino boards and programming small games. When he got to college, the stage was set to further study virtual environments.

It wasn’t long before Tucker sought out projects where he could put his skills to use. Before he became a member of the FutureHAUS team he initially worked on computer science projects as part of Associate Professor Denis Gracanin’s lab, where he processed data. When Gracanin made him aware of an opportunity that would allow him to take a 3D modeling project and make it interactive, Tucker got his entre onto the FutureHAUS team.

“Projects like the FutureHAUS really demonstrate how interdisciplinary computer science has become,” said Gracanin, who is also one of the faculty members of the FutureHAUS team. “The increasing ubiquity of smart-built environments means that not only will coding skills continue to be in demand, but also those who can think about how to design and develop software in ways that draw from many areas like human-computer interaction, the internet of things, machine learning, home design, and sustainability.

Indeed, one of the challenges, according to Tucker, was working on an interdisciplinary team of students from many different backgrounds who had no choice but to inherently trust the process of working together and one another, without having a lot of knowledge of their colleague’s expertise.

“This project was made possible by so many different disciplines,” said Tucker. “Computer science, power engineering, architecture, landscaping, industrial systems engineering — all of them were critical to making the FutureHAUS work. One thing I appreciated from this team was the tremendous amount of trust that goes into working on a project like this with multiple teams who don’t necessarily have expertise in one another’s fields.”

One of the categories that pushed the Virginia Tech team over the edge to victory was the innovation category, where computer science counted a lot in making the FutureHAUS function. The structure has 67 smart devices, including a smart faucet that can be programmed to deliver just the right amount of water for specific tasks like boiling spaghetti, or a smart mirror that can show its users which clothes they currently have in their closet.

Sustainable energy consumption, within the context of the overall activities in a house, was also a significant factor of the design. The backbone of the FutureHAUS’ data storage and analysis was made possible by OSIsoft, a company that donated a software package called the PI System that enabled the team to store and analyze enormous amounts of data from the FutureHAUS’ interconnected systems —  data that Tucker and the rest of the team were able to put to good use in analyzing energy efficiency.

“Being in Dubai has made the importance of practical application more clear than any classroom assignment,” said Tucker. “Here, if I made something that had just a slightly higher time complexity, it delayed everything. All the systems had to be as efficient as possible. That was important for things like safety features and also measuring energy consumption. That’s a lesson I don’t think you get in the classroom.”

Ultimately, the experience that Tucker sought from his first steps on campus has come full circle. 

“In two weeks we built a house that had fully automated systems and multimodal controls for our water, lighting, and even the height of our sinks and cabinets. We made a truly impressive space that people were comparing to a space station or something out of science fiction,” he said. “We want to take all of our data of the usage of the house and analyze it further. There’s great potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning applications that we haven’t explored yet. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

And that seems to be his message to potential Hokies: Your future is waiting.

Written by Amy Loeffler

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