In front of his State College home, Eli M. Hughes ’01 shows his electric bike, the impetus for his “BunnyVision” project.

It Starts With a Story

Published 08.30.2023

by Tom Speicher, writer/video producer. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel, writer/photo editor

Fall 2023, Volume 32, Number 2

For Eli M. Hughes, everything has a story.

The bright yellow paint that envelops the exterior of his house. The built-in, glass-enclosed cabinets that double as homey hideaways for his family’s three tiny dogs. The scores of shiny circuit boards affixed to a wall in his basement “mad scientist lab.” The black cherry lumber used to construct a backyard studio space.

But his story is the best of the bunch: A poor kid from the country who went from disinterested high school student to electronics guru at Pennsylvania College of Technology before embarking on a successful career distinguished by passion and projects.

I really try to look at everything holistically and be the connecting glue between large technical pieces from different disciplines.

“I really try to look at everything holistically and be the connecting glue between large technical pieces from different disciplines,” said Hughes, appropriately surrounded by an eclectic assortment of gizmos and gadgets in his home office. “It’s all about building the skill stack. Being an expert at one thing is less important than being good at a stack of different things.”

His resume reflects that belief. Since graduating from Penn College in 2001, Hughes has served as an engineer at numerous entities, with responsibilities ranging from software to hardware to artificial intelligence. Today, Hughes is leveraging his recent personal experiences to succeed as a full-time content creator and engineering consultant for electronics-rooted companies with global reach.

“It’s a story that always leads you into something,” he remarked. To prove his point, Hughes tells a tale featuring an electric bike, a broken ankle and a semiconductor chip.

This story begins near his State College home on Mount Nittany. Hughes often hiked trails tucked in the 800-acre conservancy nearby for exercise and stress relief. That ended on a cold, damp December day in 2021 when a “gnarly looking root” tripped him, resulting in a broken left ankle. Several months and two surgeries later, Hughes splurged and bought a high-end e-bike to aid his recovery.

“The motor only helps when you turn it on, so you still have to pedal and get exercise. After being on the couch for months, just to have something that got me outside and that could take stress off my ankle, I was like, ‘Oh my god!’” exclaimed the married father of two. “Rather than doing all the pomp and circumstance of going to the gym, I just get on the bike.”

The lone drawback of his daily bike regimen is sharing the road with cars. “I just don’t like things coming up behind me, and I hate turning my head. I tried the little side mirrors, but they were just distracting,” Hughes explained.

Circuit boards adorn the wall in Hughes' workshop.

Of course, the self-described “full-stack problem-solver” envisioned a technical workaround to his dilemma. Hughes began investigating the feasibility of linking a rear camera to a small screen on the front of the bike. His relationship with a multibillion-dollar Dutch company turned that possibility into a paid pursuit.

Since 2016, Hughes has served as a pro support consultant for NXP Semiconductors, a prominent designer and manufacturer of semiconductors that boasts a worldwide customer base. When high-tier NXP clients need immediate expert troubleshooting assistance, they contact experts like Hughes.

His relationship with NXP extends to the marketing department because he has written technical articles for the company’s community website. In late 2022, a marketing official told Hughes about a semiconductor chip being developed by NXP. That matter-of-fact revelation led to a eureka moment.

“The Art of Electronics” and related textbooks continue to serve as a resource on Hughes’ bookshelf.

“The chip has built-in neural network technology, so you can have artificial intelligence functionality that you’re now seeing in smart doorbells and whatnot,” Hughes said. “They showed me a demo of the chip doing face detection. I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute! This thing is reading a camera. I can rework that to detect cars!’”

The NXP marketing representative loved the idea. For the past several months, Hughes has been building the electronics for the chip so cyclists one day may, in his words, “connect with their physical space through optics, electromagnetics and acoustics.”

The goal is for the chip to facilitate communication between a tiny NXP-powered camera pointing behind the rider and a special display unit attached to the front of the bike. The screen – manufactured by another company that Hughes has consulted for – emits rather than reflects light and would show images in the form of “cartoony-like” graphics. Force feedback on the handlebars would provide a “gentle nudge,” prompting the rider to glance at the screen when objects are behind them.

As Hughes develops these elements, he’s documenting the effort – code name “BunnyVision” – for various NXP online platforms. The content is a mix of deep-dive technical examinations, 500-word briefs and fun TikTok-like videos.

Hughes shows what the display unit for his "BunnyVision" project might look like.

Hughes shows what the display unit for his "BunnyVision" project might look like.

“I’m literally designing and building the thing as I’m writing about it,” he laughed.

The content is personalized with the story of how he discovered the chip and its possible use for cyclists. Hughes believes that makes him more relatable and credible in the eyes of discerning consumers. In fact, the first entry recounts his broken ankle and need for the e-bike.

He could have started his story much earlier. It’s that interesting.

Hughes grew up in an area with more white-tailed deer than people: Ludlow, a village of about 300 residents in rural McKean County. Playing guitar stirred the soul of the shy teenager, rather than reading textbooks.

“Today I feel kind of bad for my teachers,” Hughes admitted. “I’ve run into some of them in recent years. They’ve told me that I was just worried about the guitar and that I screwed around a little too much. But then they say that they knew I was going to end up OK.”

Hughes' beloved guitar

Penn College played a key role in that eventuality.

Hughes’ father, James, in his day a noted drummer and expert music technician, studied electronics at Penn College’s predecessor Williamsport Area Community College. He knew the school had the potential to inspire career direction, so he dragged his disinterested high school junior to campus for a tour.

The plan worked. A peek in the electronics lab transformed Hughes from reluctant visitor to dedicated student.

“There was a computer with wires connected to a breadboard that had some things that looked like they were from a mad science laboratory hooked up to a giant robotic arm. The arm was moving around. Students were writing code that was controlling the robot,” Hughes smiled. “I was like, ‘This is it! This is exactly what I want to do!’ I was hooked and became uber-focused on success at that point.”

The moment rekindled an interest Hughes discovered in seventh grade while taking a computer literacy class. A Nintendo fanatic at the time, he learned the chip inside his school’s Apple IIe computer was comparable to the one operating his treasured game console. “Once I made that connection, I got into programming,” he said. “It was like, ‘I can make that chip do anything.’”

In his well-equipped home workshop, Hughes shares the stories behind his innovations.

Over time, the absence of a home computer and the lure of music dampened his enthusiasm for programming – until the fateful Penn College visit. Hughes left campus that day determined to raise his grades before graduating from high school and enrolling in the college’s electronics program.

“Penn College was perfect for me because it started with some of the hands-on right away. We were soldering literally on the first day,” said Hughes, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering technology (now known as electronics & computer engineering technology). “I went from failing algebra in high school two or three times to acing calculus my first year at Penn College because I loved the environment.”

But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

Finances were a constant concern. Hughes vividly recalls doing his laundry in a bathtub, relying on food stamps and living for one semester in the sweltering attic of a downtown Victorian home rented by some friends.

“Eli’s locker was right across the hall from my office, and all that I saw was a locker full of ramen noodles,” remarked Richard J. Calvert Jr., a retired electronics faculty member. Calvert also witnessed Hughes’ passion for electronics, which helped him overcome any financial hardships.

“He was incredibly self-motivated. He was always interested in going beyond an assignment,” Calvert said. “Eli was always working on projects and wanted to understand how systems worked.”

“Eli had an intense desire for knowledge,” added Jeffrey L. Rankinen, associate professor of electronics and computer engineering technology. “He was constantly engaged in conversation about electronics with students and faculty.”

Hughes spent all hours in the electronics department, whether working on his own projects, tutoring other students or monitoring an adjacent computer lab. Calvert, then the department head, eventually hired him to teach some freshman-level electronics courses.

“His success following graduation was pretty much assured,” Calvert said.

A 40th birthday gift, made by Hughes’ wife, Angie, features memories – including a caricature drawn by an artist at the college’s Diamond 10 Anniversary festivities in 1998-99.

“Going to Penn College was the best decision I ever made,” said Hughes, recipient of the 2010 Alumni Achievement Award and a member of the electronics program’s industry advisory committee. “Penn College can get you anywhere you need to go.”

Multiple accomplishments have marked Hughes’ “travels.” Highlights include earning a master’s degree in acoustics from Penn State, working for Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory – a high-tech facility dedicated to systems engineering research for the U.S. Navy – developing four electronics-related patents and co-founding TZero, a sensor technology and software firm dedicated to the food and beverage industry.

After five-plus years, Hughes left TZero in 2022 to try consulting full time.

“Consulting has always been on the side and was stressful because I didn’t have enough time to do what I wanted,” he explained. “I decided this was the time to let me just go do this. The work is stacked up. It’s still to be determined what the outcome will be, but I think it will be OK. It’s just choosing the opportunities that best fit the strategy.”

The strategy is modeled on his experience with NXP. Hughes is pitching his technical and content expertise to other companies under his Wavenumber brand, the limited liability consulting company he established in grad school.

His goal is to split his time equally between engineering and creating content that will connect personal experiences, technical elements and products to tell compelling stories in support of companies.

“I am kind of a workaholic,” Hughes said. “But at the same time, there are some days when I have to take some time to do something else.”

Something undoubtedly worthy of a story.