Since Amazon launched the Echo Show, the first Alexa device with a screen, the company has been encouraging developers to modify Alexa Skills to make them more visual. That was the impetus for the Multimodal Alexa Skills Challenge, a contest judging Alexa Skills with visual components.
The Challenge, which opened in 2018 and is giving away $150,000 total in prize money, received 430 entries. In early March, Amazon announced the top 10 finalists that would be competing for the number-one spot.
Caroline Dunn, an Atlanta-based marketing executive, Alexa consultant, and self-taught technologist, was the only female in the top 10.
Dunn received her master’s degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, but spent her career leading marketing and product management teams at large telecommunications companies like Bellsouth and AT&T. In 2016, she went off on her own as a consultant.
At the same time, she developed a deep interest in the recently-released Alexa.
“The way I see it, this is like the rise of the smartphone all over again, the smartphone and the app store. What’s really exciting about smartphones is you load on all of these apps and they can do all these different things. That’s what Amazon is trying to do with Alexa, but they’re calling it Skills,” she says.
Dunn taught herself to code and began experimenting with creating Alexa Skills, at first just for fun and to win small prizes in developer contests held by Amazon. She won several devices, seven sweatshirts, and “a lot of pairs of socks.”
Her first Skill, called Cork Ornaments, taught people how to make Christmas ornaments from wine corks. Last year, Amazon featured it on the front page of their Skills store during the holidays.
“They said, we’re going to feature you, but you have to make like 20,000 changes to it in the next week, and then you can get on the front page,” Dunn tells Hypepotamus. “It was honestly a really horrible Skill, but they were so desperate for something holiday-themed.”
Her expertise continued to improve, and Dunn soon found herself consulting on business use cases for Alexa. She wrote the Baby Einsteins Story Time Skill for Atlanta company Kids II, and helped several other companies modify their APIs to accommodate Alexa users.
“Now it’s my job: I consult on Alexa, I speak about Alexa, I work with companies helping them get in on Alexa,” says Dunn, who is also the Mobile Marketing co-chair of the Wireless Technology Forum, and the founder of Women in Wireless.
Last year, for her own personal use and for fun, Dunn developed a Skill called “Running Clothes”, which pulls from a weather data API to tell you what to wear if you’re heading out on a run.
“As a runner, you spend a lot of time checking the weather,” says Dunn, who has run three marathons in the last three years, including the New York Marathon. She couldn’t find an app to tells her what clothes would provide the best running performance in given conditions. So, she built it.
When the contest was announced, she added a visual element to Running Clothes and submitted it for the judges’ consideration. Two weeks ago learned she had made it into the top 10 as not only the only female recipient, but the only fitness-related Skill.
Running Clothes utilizes the OpenWeather API and geolocation to determine current conditions like temperature, wind speed and humidity. After the user registers with their gender identification, they can get personalized recommendations on proper running attire for any given day and time.
The personalization comes from machine learning features that Dunn added after receiving feedback from the contest judges. After each run, a user can rate their experience — how long they ran, whether they felt good during and after the run, and specifically, whether they felt hot or cold.
“And then next time, through machine learning, it will automatically give you a more personalized recommendation, based on what you told it last time,” says Dunn.
Now that she has made top 10, the contest is in its “customer engagement” phase, where the judges will track unique and returning users of the Skill.
The customer engagement phase ends this Friday, March 29th, and the final winner will be announced April 12th.
Following the contest, Dunn plans to keep the Skill free for users. If she were to monetize, she says she would do so by allowing a brand — think Nike or Adidas — to sponsor specific clothing recommendations.
You can download Running Clothes here.