A small car made of K’NEX pieces lit up—first in blue, then red and finally green. Then it zipped along a driveway, moving left, right, forward and backward—all controlled by Austin Wilson’s voice and Alexa, the virtual assistant developed by Amazon.
Though he was only 16 years old, Wilson’s ability to use Alexa to move the car earned him second place in Hackster’s Internet of Voice Challenge with Raspberry Pi, a small computing device—and cemented his interest in Amazon’s voice service.
Since then, Wilson has continued to win competitions using Alexa and gained recognition from Amazon along the way. Meanwhile, he’s applying his computer science skills to other projects. And just this week, the first-year student started his second semester at Case Western Reserve University.
Honors from Amazon
Wilson was first introduced to Amazon Alexa in the summer of 2016 and soon began developing Alexa skills, which are voice apps individuals can create that allow devices using Alexa to do more.
“I got really interested because of the availability of it—how there was no barrier to me learning it,” Wilson said.
Following up on his early success with his voice-controlled K’NEX car, Wilson integrated Alexa into a video game he enjoyed playing called Elite Dangers.
The skill also won him first place in Amazon Alexa’s API Mashup Contest.
For the contributions Wilson has made to Alexa, Amazon named him an Alexa Champion, a group of individuals who have been most engaged with the voice service.
Most recently, he traveled to Las Vegas for Amazon Web Services’ 2018 re:Invent event. There, he teamed up for a hackathon with another Alexa Champion to build a skill for UK train departures, for which they won the Best Use of Alexa Presentation Language category. There, Wilson also had his photo taken with Amazon’s Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels.
At the suggestion of a family member, Wilson first became interested in computer science in sixth grade, quickly consuming free online tutorials on different programming languages.
And Alexa has been just one platform with which he’s worked—in fact, he’s only been using Alexa for about two and a half years.
For the past three summers, he’s interned at Hyland Software, where he’s pursuing a project using Alexa he proposed to the company during an intern hackathon.
And in his spare time, Wilson is developing a safety app called eyeAlert that would help schools better respond to emergency situations.
He began the project with classmates at Rocky River High School, and the app has already been highlighted by local media outlets, including ABC News 5 Cleveland and Fox 8 News.
Moving forward, he’d like to expand interest in Amazon Alexa development, potentially launching a student organization here on campus. Though he knows some maybe intimidated by the prospect of working with Alexa, Wilson said it’s possible to build a skill in just 30 minutes—even with no previous experience in coding.
“[Amazon is] really proud of it and it’s true because I actually went through the process,” he said.
Find out more about Wilson by reading his answers to this week’s five questions.
1. What’s your favorite poem or poet?
My favorite movie is Interstellar. There’s this constant poem they do throughout the movie that I really like. It’s called “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” [by Dylan Thomas]. I personally really like it because of how they integrated it with the movie.
2. Do you prefer e-readers or actual books?
Actual books—you don’t have as many distractions.
3. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
To stand against adversity, and also to not give up. I had a lot of opportunities to give up, but I didn’t.
4. If you were to become famous for something, for what do you think it would be?
Something with computer science or engineering and entrepreneurship, hopefully.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
My familiarity with it. I went to preschool in the Church of the Covenant.
My dad [Department of Pediatrics researcher Michael Wilson] lived up on top of the hill and we took the shuttles—we would call them the mini-buses. It’s kind of surreal, too, because I get on the shuttles while here now. Also, before [Tinkham Veale University Center] was constructed, it used to be a big field. The sculptures that are in the courtyard—we would have day classes in those, and we would run around the field.
We used to call the little circle in front of Kelvin Smith Library the duck pond, even though it’s just a tiny field of grass.
My dad’s been working here since I was born, so I’m very comfortable here, which has made for a good transition to college.