2014-05-08

Co.Labs

How This iPhone Hardware Engineer Stays In His Creative Zone

Former Apple hardware boss Todd Beauchamp says the secret to solving tough problems is to move faster than your distractions.



When Todd Beauchamp was 18, he couldn’t afford a new lighting kit for his camera. So he decided to make his own out of a piece of all thread, leaving the spool on his shelf for future use. It's a habit that has stuck with him ever since: crafting hardware solutions out of whatever objects he can find. It might sound haphazard, but the approach was once enough to placate an angry Steve Jobs.

Beauchamp, who now serves as president and founder of home theater company UnityHT, has always benefited from this sort of experimental tinkering. Indeed, he's currently planning a yearlong road trip in an RV for both a personal getaway and on-location product experimentation. And while it's been his M.O. since his youth, Beauchamp's tendency to plug hardware problems with nearby objects first reaped big rewards while he was an audio engineer at Apple.

How A Tiny Blue Tube Saved The iPhone

Three months into working at Apple, the first iPhone’s audio was completely broken, which is what Beauchamp says the team had been working on for over a year.

"I was told that Steve [Jobs] pulled a bunch of people in and was jumping up and down, cussing and screaming, 'Fucking fix this!'" says Beauchamp. "My boss comes into my office on Friday and says, 'You're taking over iPhone on Monday' and handed me the iPhone."

Getting to the source of the problem, Beauchamp popped the phone's black cover off, and looked at the design for the microphone boot.

"There was a scrap piece of blue tubing lying on my lab floor that was stripped off a piece of wire," he says. "It was about one inch long. This is gonna sound really weird. I visualized an air molecule and how it would bounce around within the phone. I think of what would cause that problem, and understanding down to the molecular level how I can fix it. I picked up the piece of tubing, shoved it in the microphone boot, hand-made a little tiny gasket, popped that plastic black cap back on the phone, and made a phone call."

In 15 minutes, the problem was solved.

"I have that phone and a sticker on the back of it that says, 'Blue tube solution,' that got handed to Steve the next day to show him that the problem was solved."

It’s all part of Beauchamp’s solution to avoid disruption when he’s in the zone, he says.

"I'll literally be in the middle of a project and I'll grab something completely random and make whatever I needed to make in that moment," he says. "If I have a harebrained idea, and I need a few small things, I can walk over to my shelf and pull it off the shelf, and not disrupt that creative peace. Being in the moment of that creativity, and being able to walk over in the moment, whether it be noon or midnight, I can walk out and do that."

Piecing Together a Unified Experience

After five years of working at Apple, the company’s belief in product design inclusiveness inspired Beauchamp to create his own company, UnityHT, which is currently utilizing software for its next phase—personalized entertainment content.

"They [Apple] focused on the full experience and did not look at hardware or software as independent pieces of a puzzle," Beauchamp says. "When building out the UnityHT platform we took a step back to look at the bigger picture—What have our customers lost in the experience, not the technology?"

Like the molecule in the iPhone, hardware is merely a gateway to full experiences that, if done correctly, could fill the missing piece of the home entertainment puzzle, Beauchamp believes.

Using his design M.O., Beauchamp says he imagined all of the random thoughts and actions viewers have while watching television, such as wanting to find content outside of the home without disturbing their current program.

"Whether watching another movie, finding a song, or going to the theaters, the content that we're consuming in our living room is a trigger point for me to do something else."

In order to search content without leaving that particular moment, Beauchamp says he wants the product to be able to cater personalized experiences to each viewer’s moment.

"It’s like iTunes—there's five people in the home, and each person has their own iTunes account that has their own personal style of music they like," he says. "We want to bring that to the media in the living room."

Given his love of the television experience, the irony lies in Beauchamp’s upbringing in an electronics-free household, which he says helped shape his random design methods.

"I don’t think it would have created that behavior or style that I do today that allows me to be really effective in engineering and come up with solutions really quickly."

"I'm fortunate that I grew up without TV because it made me who I am, but had I had something like the product that I'm making, and been able to connect to the things that actually interest me—not The Cosby Show or silly shit like that—it would have accelerated that. That’s the difference that I want to make, is not have it be a mind-numbing experience, but an educational or expansion."

Designing From The Road On A Yearlong Trip

Beauchamp hopes to find an educational experience in an upcoming yearlong road trip, which has, for the first time, forced him to leave his lab behind and make room for new items.

"It’s been an interesting thing going through the house and packing up the house for this trip. I didn’t really realize, because I was so in the thick to it, of how much stuff I had consumed," he says.

Using few resources and picking up new ones along the way, Beauchamp says he’s going to build a small lab inside of the RV he’ll be taking so he can design from the road.

"I'll be taking acoustics like microphones and analyzers, and stuff that I can do," he says. "This test equipment will allow me to actually be able to test the acoustics right in my own little portable mobile space, but be able to take it into their space and do testing right at their facility as well, so I can test how a speaker sounds on location."

He says geographical location will be only an additional, intangible random object to add to his collection.

"My factory is in Asia, so whether I jump on a plane here or jump on a plane from Denver or wherever, it doesn’t really matter if you think about it. It's so easy to think that we've got to be in this one spot to make it happen, when actually we don’t. That’s the neat thing—It doesn’t matter whether I'm sitting in a seat in San Jose or sitting in a seat in Montana."

Beauchamp says he’ll try to connect those dots—bouncing around the country, meeting seemingly random people and seeing what comes of it.

"I don’t have a schedule. I don’t have anywhere I need to be. It's just wherever," he says. "When I was 18 years old and just met some of the most amazing people in my life. If I found some little town that I liked, I stayed there for a day or I stayed there for a week, or stayed there for two weeks. It really didn’t matter. There's some really cool freedom with that."

Beauchamp was getting ready for an experimental road trip last week when he realized he needed to make a piece of broken camera equipment work. So he walked over to where he placed that all-thread spool, put it in his flash adapter, and voilà! Problem solved.

[Image: Flickr user Yutaka Tsuano]




Add New Comment

0 Comments