Rocky River High School Student Wins Amazon Developer Awards

Austin Wilson

A Rocky River High School senior is racking up awards and making a name for himself in the computer development field.

Austin Wilson, 17, won three Amazon developer awards in the last year, earning him cash prizes, equipment and respect in the developer world.

Last fall, Austin was searching how to implement AI into his Raspberry Pi (RPi). A contest challenging RPi users to make an Amazon Alexa skill to control RPi popped up in the search results. So he thought why not enter the contest and learn how to use Alexa at the same time.

The Internet of Voice (IoV) Challenge on, a developer community dedicated to learning hardware, tasked DIY developers with building compelling voice experiences using RPi, small computers that promote learning basic computer science, and Amazon Alexa.

“I went at it as a learning opportunity,” Austin said, adding that last year Amazon was still perfecting Alexa and it wasn’t in many households yet. “It was really interesting to work with new technology and technology I’ve already known about.”

Austin came up with an idea to build an Alexa skill that controls a motorized model car. The skill involved moving the car forward and back, turning it left and right, and bringing it to a stop. He also wanted it to change the color of the car’s LED lights.

He wrote the Alexa skill and RPi code in two weeks after using tutorials in the Alexa Skills Kit to teach himself how to build voice experiences. His Voice Controlled K’nex Car – Austin’s first original Alexa skill – won second place for Best Alexa Skills Kit with Raspberry Pi out of 100 submitted projects.

“At first I wasn’t entering to be considered. I was just entering to see how my project would compare to other projects,” Austin said, adding that he had a big pile of K’nex and brought them out to build his car.

After placing in the challenge, Hackster reached out to Austin to encourage him to enter another Amazon Alexa contest. He decided to integrate Alexa into a video game, which had not been done before to this extent.

Austin went on to build the Elite: Dangerous Ship Assistant to add Alexa to the space combat-simulation video game. Austin created a skill to use Alexa to control a ship in the video game and control functions, including the ship’s landing gear, cargo scoop, fuel scoop and more.

He said the ship has a computer that speaks to the user, but the user can’t talk to the computer. Austin wanted to add an extra layer of immersion. He mapped all of the button input for controllers to specific voice requests, creating simple and complex commands.

Austin entered his Ship Assistant in the Amazon Alexa API Mashup Contest, winning first place for the Most Creative API Mashup. His YouTube video of the project received 50,000 views in less than three days. Several national and international magazines also wrote about his new skill.

“I reached a fair portion of the fan base of Elite Dangerous,” Austin said.

After winning the API Mashup contest, Amazon Game Studios reached out to Austin to let him know about a potential job opportunity, not realizing his age or that Austin’s Elite: Dangerous Ship was submitted into a contest sponsored by Amazon. Amazon’s Alexa also reached out based on his two contest wins and his popularity on YouTube to do a developer spotlight interview that was posted to the Alexa developer blog.

The author of that blog post nominated Austin to be recognized as an Alexa Champion, a developer recognition program for elite Alexa developers who have proven themselves to teach and inspire people to use Alexa. Austin is the youngest Alexa Champion. The title gives him access to Alexa devices and he provides input and feedback to other developers.

Last summer he entered – and won – another contest, capturing first place in the Alexa Skills Contest, where he had to design any creative or useful skill. Austin took the idea a step further and built a skill builder for the Wikia Platform. Austin used his skill builder to create an Elite: Dangerous Wiki skill using the Elite: Dangerous Wiki on Wikia, a platform for communities to build fan-made Wikis for different games or media platforms. His Elite: Dangerous Wiki skill complements his previously designed Elite Dangerous Ship Assistant.

After winning his third contest, Austin took a short break from developing to focus on college applications. During his break, Austin received a call from Amazon, which flew Austin and his father, Mike, to its Seattle headquarters for a video developer spotlight that would be featured at Amazon´s annual Re:Invent developer conference. Austin was identified as one of six Alexa Champions known as “Alexa Pioneers.” He was interviewed while performing a demonstration of his K’nex car he designed to win the initial Hackster contest.

“I asked my dad about a week before they called if we could go to Seattle for Spring Break. He said that probably wasn’t going to happen,” Austin said. “A week later, Amazon called us to fly me to Seattle to do the video interview.”

In his spare time, Austin is an Eagle Scout, plays tennis and is a member of the marching band, Robotics Club and Computer Club. During the school year he also works as a developer at Hyland Software. He plans to major in computer engineering to become a video game developer or to develop software for satellites and space missions.

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