/ Voice Design

‘Tech’ Challenge Accepted

How we enabled voice-novices to build smart Alexa skills

The brainchild of UnternehmerTUM aka UTUM; TechChallenge is a 3 month-long practical course that is focused on fostering innovation and getting students to think about tackling future-oriented challenges of real businesses.

What makes it different from traditional lab courses at university or even company internships is that it brings together students from interdisciplinary backgrounds to work on ideas right from conception to creation. While working with the tech-partners, the teams are still free to experiment with their ideas - be it in Robotics, Internet of Things, Smart Homes or Virtual Reality. Being the first batch, the program kindled excitement in the organizers, partners and participants alike.

With the tech-partners being visionaries keen on crafting the future of technical innovation in their own fields, the program was designed to be immensely challenging for the participants. Among the partners were Texas Instruments, OKIKO, MakerSpace & SAP and ourselves - VUI.Agency.

While giving back to the community by providing guidance to students was certainly a motivation, the greater rationale behind our involvement with the program as a knowledge and technology partner was more than just this.

Ardent believers in the vast potential of Voice technology to drastically improve the lives of the elderly and disabled, we wanted to make the development and usage of voice systems more widespread, especially focusing on this demographic.
This was the message that was conveyed to the participants when we pitched our challenge at the Kick-off, in October last year.

Our co-founders before presenting the Voice Challenge at the Kick-off

Our main focus for the challenge -

"Leverage the power of voice technology and revolutionize lives for the elderly and the disabled."

In the following days, all participants had the opportunity to choose their preferred challenge from those offered by the partnering companies. They then had to team up in groups of 4 members.
Turns out - we managed to trigger the curiosity and passion of more than 25 participants, thus bagging 6 teams - the highest for any tech-partner.

In the next 3 months, we groomed these teams and empowered them with the skills required to develop full-fledged voice applications - all from scratch. Towards this end, we coached the teams in being Agile by familiarizing them with agile workflows, tools and development practices.
Our goal was for them to enjoy working in a result-oriented, agile development setting that aims to deliver the best outcomes even in time-crunched situations.

The timeline was organized in several Sprints - each spanning 2 weeks.
Mondays were for planning, followed by 2 full weeks of productive work and Fridays of the following week were set aside for review and retrospective - and this is when we would get together with the teams personally. This allowed us to focus our dedicated attention on each team on a weekly basis and provide them with the best guidance we could.
Additionally, we equipped each of the teams with Amazon Echo devices for development and prototyping purposes.

After team formation, the next major task was to come up with their own problem statements (or Challenges). It was interesting for us to see various interesting and unique ideas pop out.

Fast Forward 3 months... Come February 2018.

In the meantime, these participants were also offered training sessions by our CTO Alexander Meissner on several topics ranging from Software development and standard coding practises to Voice UI Design.

The teams were now ready with their projects and we were quite impressed with the progress they had made in this short span.
Be it getting familiar to the agile development approach or picking up a whole new programming language or even building hardware kits, they had mastered it all.
And finally, it's Showtime !

All preparations done for the TechChallenge Demo Night

The TechChallenge Demo night was scheduled on 1st February at the UTUM premises in Garching and we were eagerly awaiting the presentations of our amazing teams.

The evening started with the pitches - great ideas brought to life by all the participants. If there was a group who addressed the energy crisis issue in Europe, there was another who wanted to bring education to the students of children in Africa. While few worked on making technical education interesting for learners, there were others looking at shopping made easy for kids. And then there were the Voice enthusiasts - the 6 teams who we had coached for the past few months.

3P - This was a team trying to address a common problem among Aphasia patients - the difficulty of coming up with the right words at the right time.
So when the patient would stop in the middle of saying "Could you pass me the ..." - Alexa would promptly come to the rescue with "Do you mean Salt?"

The Auditors - More often than not, symptoms go unnoticed until they turn into serious problems. To ensure this does not happen, this team combined an Alexa skill with Machine learning to detect patterns in user speech and alert the user in case of abnormalities.

VoiCom - With self-learning and e-learning courses becoming more popular than ever, these students devised a course for the old people to easily learn Tai chi, using simple voice instructions. Given their unique approach, it shouldn't be hard to expand to other courses.

TeamRocket - How many times have we skipped our medicines just because we forgot to take them? The problem worsens when it comes to the old and disabled. The solution devised by this team not only reminds patients to take their medications on time, but also performs timely tracking and notifies their family in case of problems.

IOSA - Solving two problems in one unique solution, this ambitious team addresses the issues of shortage of nursing staff in old age homes and no prior knowledge about criticality during multiple patient calls. For the patient, it is as simple as pressing an Alexa button and stating the requirement. Each voice request is augmented with a priority, based on the nature of the request - which then allows the nurses to effectively cater to the patients, without worrying about delayed emergencies.

Helix - Reading for the blind - redefined. With the perfect combination of an Alexa skill and accompanying hardware kit, learning Braille couldn't be made simpler. Just starting to learn Braille? Feel the letters through the movement of buttons on the kit while Alexa reads out the letters. Want to test your skills? Try the quizzes posed by Alexa.

Amidst all these compelling projects, we had to choose two winners. Although it was a tough decision, Helix came first and IOSA won the second place.
No competition is complete without the prizes and we were well aware of this. So the winners were awarded with Amazon Echo devices and the runners-up received an Amazon Echo Dot each. Their efforts had finally paid off.

Top: Our Co-founder Patrick Esslinger sharing our impressions of the TechChallenge. Bottom: VUI Team with the Voice Challenge winners

Overall, the program proved to be a great success and we are glad to have been a part of it. In retrospective, the TechChallenge served to highlight the underlying prospectives for Voice system design in a societal sector that is often underestimated by futuristic technology.