Last month, hundreds of developers and designers from around the world filled Pier 48 in San Francisco. They had gathered to compete at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, a grueling 24-hour gauntlet fueled by equal parts passion and caffeine.
Teams were competing for fame, fortune, and bragging rights. They each had exactly one minute on stage to present their creation. Out of over 100 submissions, only two would take home the Amazon Alexa Award, and only one would win the coveted TechCrunch Grand Prize.
My colleague Justin Jeffress and I were in attendance with a singular objective: to help teams create the “next big thing” with Alexa. Armed with a suitcase full of Alexa-enabled devices, we provided as much technical and voice-design guidance as we could to help hackers bring their vision to life with voice.
Voice Design 101 in Just 30 Minutes
We had just 30 minutes to teach attendees how to build an Alexa skill, so we hunkered down, buckled in, and took off. I went through my regular four-hour spiel in just 20 minutes, covering the whole gamut of concepts from designing an interaction model in Skill Builder to connecting it with a micro-service in AWS Lambda. We finished with just enough time for questions.
I frequently tell people that Alexa is a voice user interface—if your application has a GUI, why not give your users a VUI, too? Of course, this is an oversimplification since conversation and dialog is very nuanced. I knew that we couldn’t dive into the semantics during our 30-minute session, so I committed to reach out to every team that expressed interest in Alexa.
Justin and I tag-teamed through the evening. We worked with teams closely, troubleshooting, developing, designing and discussing the subtleties of complex conversational interfaces. Daylight yielded to nightfall as participants rallied on. It was a wild chorus of keyboards clicking, electronics droning, and LCDs flickering. I had noticed some teams were sleeping in shifts. Others chose not to sleep at all. There were sleeping bags, air mattresses, and makeshift pillows strewn around collections of emptied energy drinks. It was approaching midnight on a Saturday and this crowd showed no sign of relenting. Thus, at the stroke of midnight, it was a welcome hiatus when beer was served and teams took a moment to socialize.
At the crack of dawn on Sunday, I was back at the event venue. I could tell that sleep was in short supply, nonetheless the energy of the room was palpable. Teams scrambled to make last-minute adjustments. Before we knew it, it was time to present to the judges. We took our seats as the teams took the stage, one by one.
What a difference a day makes. From blockchain-powered gaming apps to-voice controlled drones, we were awestruck by the creativity and sophistication of what our teams had managed to create in just 24 hours. Imagine what could be achieved given a full week!
After the presentations came the hard part. We had the impossible task of choosing only two teams to recognize with the Amazon Alexa Award. Given the sheer ingenuity and high caliber of the submissions, this was no easy task. After careful deliberation, we called up the winners.
Winner #1: Odis
Voice opens up new opportunities for creative endeavors, and the makers of Odis seized that opportunity with their creation. Tim Street, Ardon Bailey, Nagkumar Arkalgud, and Matt Rosenthal brought Alexa into the world of music production. Their creation enables musicians, and producers to record, play, and remix backing tracks all by voice—without having to lift their hands, drop their instruments, or leave their microphone.
Odis inspired a great deal of thought, leading us to think of ways to use voice to simplify workflows and reimagine the conventional approach to content production. I reflected on my own work day and experiences, thinking about how great it would be if Alexa could schedule my meetings, organize my inbox, or maybe even ship some code from QA to Production.
Winner #2 and Grand Prize Winner: Alexa Shop Assist
Our second winner was the team behind Alexa Shop Assist, which also took the TechCrunch Grand Prize! Co-creators Lawrence Chang, James Xu, Dinesh Thangavel, and Justin Tai wanted to create a voice service that helps customers find their way around large retail stores.
Alexa Shop Assist guides shoppers in brick and mortar to the exact location of whatever it is they’ve been trying to find. What’s more, Alexa remains contextually aware of the shopper’s previous requests as the shopper moves around the store.
As I watched the demo, I could see myself conversing with Alexa, making my way around a store. Why stop at navigation? Alexa could help me make choices, recommending products that fit my diet, telling me about ongoing sale, and even remind me what I was doing in Aisle #6 in the first place (“Don’t forget milk!”).
As technologists, we’re comfortable working toward the concept of a more advanced future. In one capacity or another, it’s the essence of our duty. Often times, we’re asked to speculate on what the future will look like. What teams innovated at this event was a welcome peek into the future of voice interfaces and the enormous potential they have to change our world.