Students hack Amazon Alexas

Hackathon participants teach Alexa unusual commands

Imagine asking Alexa if mail has been delivered before walking to the mailbox. What if you could be alerted when someone tampers with your food or were able to know if you should water your plants more or less depending on the current humidity? These concepts were explored by the students participating in this year’s Hackathon, a coding contest put on by Walla Walla University alumni and hosted by WWU’s Department of Computer Science. 

Eight teams, each comprised of two students, created their own applications using the “internet of things,” the connectivity between the internet and everyday objects. This event draws many participants pursuing computer science and engineering degrees, but students from all departments are welcome to participate. 

Travis Crumley, 2016 WWU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, was one of the hosts of this year’s event. He is a previous Hackathon winner and currently works for Google. “I was very fortunate to participate in the Hackathon and to help run it when I was at WWU, and it was part of the reason I realized jobs at top companies were possible for graduates of WWU,” said Crumley. 

The event took place over two days. On the evening of Saturday, May 18, participants gathered in Kretschmar Hall to have dinner and a short worship. That evening they discussed how the internet of things is applied in the real world and let the students become familiar with the equipment they would be working with. 

The next morning students began coding. They worked from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. using the internet of things to create commands for Amazon Alexas. Those commands would access information from the team’s choice of motion sensors, touch sensors, LED lights, or a combination of the three. 

At the end of the event, each team presented what they had set out to achieve. Some teams worked on projects related to agriculture, such as helping farmers know whether or not to water their crops based on outdoor sensors. Others attempted to simplify daily tasks for homes and families. 

One team, motionMail, created code that made it possible for a sensor placed within a mailbox to communicate with Alexa. Instead of walking to the mailbox to check the mail, the user could simply ask, “Alexa, do I have mail?” and she would respond based on whether or not the motion sensor had been triggered. 

Two teams, The Procrastinators and Maoroko, tied for the top spot this year and were awarded their own Amazon Echo Dots. All participants got to keep the hardware they used during the competition and were presented with swag from companies such as Github, Pacific Northwest National Labs and Google.

Posted May 29, 2019

Group shot of participants in hallway of academic building
Eight teams worked to code Amazon Alexas to respond to new commands through a connection to the internet of things.