Future Platforms hosts a Hackathon on voice technology

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Posted by Eddie Guevarra on 14 Aug, 2017

As a company built on a tradition of creativity and innovation, alongside our client work we love to experiment with new and emerging technologies. In that spirit, we recently hosted a company-wide hackathon, allowing both our technical and non-technical team members to be creative, explore a new technology and showcase their talents.

 

Staff arrived bright and early in the morning and were split into four designated teams. They were then given a simple theme that ultimately exercised our core value at Future Platforms: use technology to make life better and businesses more effective; for this particular event, the focus was voice technology.  Armed with laptops, an Amazon Echo, and a Google Home device, the competition quickly got underway as teams got to work on a day of creative coding that would later be adjudicated by our guest judges from Ralph Lauren, Dropbox and Future Platforms’ very own Managing Director, Adam Croxen.

Scoring points with the judges was straightforward. Every team would be judged by their product concept, its name, the presentation itself and of course, a live demonstration of the product. Each member of the winning team would ultimately be the proud owners of an Amazon Echo, so the stakes were high.

Whilst capturing our underlying theme of the day, the final products that were created were both innovative and fun. One team built a product which helped streamline the set-up of a popular team-building game; another that helped companies review the health of their apps on the iTunes and Google Play store. The third team created an app to help assist employees utilise the well-known project management tool JIRA more efficiently, while the last team’s product was built to help users find local services, based on the user’s location and context.

Wikiraces

 

Wikirace is the well-known team-building game, where users are challenged to travel from one Wikipedia page to another, in the fastest amount of time and the fewest clicks possible. By using Amazon Echo, the team concentrated on finding a solution to streamline the game and make it easier for players.

The product assisted in 3 key areas of the game: randomisation of the selection of the start and end topics; verifying that topics would correlate to an actual Wikipedia page by using the Wikipedia API; and keeping track of who had won the most games. The product was also able to register the names of participating players and update game information on the leaderboard, which the team built as an iPad application.

As the teams were being scored on presentation skills, the team showcased their app with a delightful multimedia presentation, complete with a custom-built website specifically for the product. On the other hand, the live demo had a few hiccups during the presentation which seemed to have caused some panic in the team – but with a little help from Keir in development, the team then had the product responding to voice commands to setup the game, provide the topics and track the leaderboard.

 

 

Appfit

 

Appfit was created to make it easier for businesses to monitor the performance of their apps.

This nifty app allows users to query the health of their mobile/tablet applications and gives details of the downloads, ratings and comments left by users. Identifying potential issues for particular applications is a great way to respond quickly to negative reviews – and voice technology makes it that much easier. Discovering how well your app is doing in real-time is as easy as asking, “Alexa, what is the current status of my app?” Alexa then responded with daily download figures, new ratings and reviews.

The team did an amazingly slick presentation of their product and were commended by the judges and the audience for a brilliant concept. The live demonstration of the product in action went off without a hitch; although the team explained that they hoped the review that Alexa would comment on, wouldn’t have any swear words – lucky them! Nonetheless, the judges were highly impressed with the presentation and product itself.

 

 

outsideAbout

 

With consumers often guilty of being too indecisive, outsideAbout was created to make it easier for users to make decisions when it comes to choosing what to do or where to eat for a night out.

outsideAbout was the only entry in the hackathon that utilised Google Home instead of Amazon Echo. By using Artificial Intelligence service api.ai, the team were able to design a product that acted as an event finder, which had the ability to suggest events nearby the user’s location. For example, if a user was to say “Ok Google, I’m hungry”, it would suggest a restaurant nearby that they could eat at. In the same way, a user could also say “Ok Google, I want to watch a play, and outsideAbout would suggest a nearby theatre show. Api.ai integrated with the voice commands from Google Home to semantically figure out (using AI) what the user was asking for. With the categories defined, it was able to class the inputs and provide them to the team’s google functions, which were written in javascript, and perform an api call to the event api that the team were using. The results were then formatted and provided back to Google Home. By using Artificial Intelligence, the team were able to train the product to identify places of interest based on the users’ needs.

Teams and judges in the room were very impressed with how they trained the AI engine to respond to a large variety of words, phrases and even accents! The presentation itself was fun, informative and hilarious, especially when the team showed the audience a series of video interviews that they had conducted with ‘real people’ outside of the office; the joke here was that team member, Johan, had assumed the role of all the interviewees, many of whom were Future Platforms employees. A great addition to the presentation to score extra points.

 

Jira Wizard

Jira is one of the most commonly used issue tracking products in the world today. As such, most project management and development teams find themselves on Jira constantly throughout their working day, sometimes to even check simple things such as who is working on what, and at what stage of the project.

Jira Wizard was designed to simplify this process. In an age where time is of the essence, Jira Wizard cuts down the amount of time that users would normally spend clicking through various sections of the software to find the simplest information. By using voice technology, employees could ask “Alexa, who is working on issue 42 of the current sprint?”

The answer would take a second, as opposed to the extended time it would have taken to manually find the information. By saving valuable minutes, employees could plan out their next week or project more quickly and efficiently.

Within the presentation itself, the team were challenged to test a series of phrases from the judges, that included calling upon Alexa to inform the speaker of who was working on various different issues, to which Jira Wizard performed perfectly on each occasion; A sign of a well-built product.

 

The Winner

The ideas presented were innovative, fun and most of all, answered the specific needs of the user; something which is fundamental to any product made here at Future Platforms. Deciding on a winner for the day was a hard task to say the least, and the teams were scored on their concepts, brand names, presentations and prototypes.

Each judge was impressed by the teams’ offerings, but ultimately the bragging rights for the 2017 FP Hackathon went to Team #3, also known as Team Tarantula, for outsideAbout.

 

The winning team had a combination of a very good presentation and prototype, but also gave accessibility to an audience in terms of marketability. The concept was also favourable to a wider audience.

 

Lessons Learned

The most difficult aspect of the challenge found by all teams was coming up with a viable concept. Much to the surprise of teams 1, 2 and 4, they discovered that the Amazon Echo, which they assumed was the most popular, was actually one of the most difficult ones to work with.  

The teams that worked with AWS found that it was not as easy as they had initially thought. Those who worked with the Amazon Echo experienced difficulty when trying out different accents in the testing phase. Some of the teams discovered that the device was not sophisticated enough to identify certain accents – in particular, Scottish, French, Indian and Italian. Ultimately, voice recognition tests would be hit or miss. In some of the tests, Alexa would fail to hold a conversation with an individual, so asking related questions would frustratingly go nowhere. Furthermore, some developers found it difficult to find certain instructions within the documentation provided by AWS, which proved to be highly time-consuming; especially in a one day Hackathon.

However, there are some positives to the future of voice technology. As it develops, it will begin to remove certain barriers that are currently present when using existing devices, such as mobile phones or tablets. Currently, a task on these devices involves the user having to unlock their phone, navigate to the particular app, select what they desire and confirm their choice. With voice technology, this barrier is eliminated and opens the door to a much easier user experience. The process of ordering a pizza, for example, is simplified and completed in a few spoken sentences:

 

Alexa, I’d like to order a pepperoni pizza with extra jalapenos from my nearest Domino’s, as soon as possible

 

There is also a strong sense from within the teams that voice technology will be more commonly used within the home environment than the office – partially due to the stigma that is attached to talking out loud in a busy office setting, often being loud enough as it is. In addition, by simplifying manual processes using voice, it looks to give users more of what they don’t have – time. We learnt however, that one day is not a substantial amount of time for a Hackathon. Most teams suggested that the subject of time, which they did not have a lot of, was a crucial factor in building their products as it would have allowed them to maximise the technology further. By extending the allocated time to two days, teams would have enough time to carry out the work that they needed to do without having to be rushed.

The day brought a lot of laughter, great ideas and an overall sense of team accomplishment. More importantly, one of our core values at Future Platforms is to use technology to make life better – and every single employee worked to do just that.

A big thank you to all the teams that participated and a big congratulations to the outsideAbout team for winning the first Future Platforms Hackathon of 2017.

 

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