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How a 16-year-old won a scholarship to Apple's WWDC

Ahead of this month's big event, Apple put out a call for students to create apps that would knock its socks off. Here's what Ash Bhat came up with.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
4 min read

16-year-old developer Ash Bhat.
16-year-old developer Ash Bhat. Ash Bhat

A 16-year-old programmer named Ash Bhat is attending Apple's WWDC next week for free. How? He created an iOS app that earned him one of 150 scholarships.

Tickets to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference sold out within two minutes after going on sale in April. But the company held out hope for student developers, promising scholarships for 150 of those able to create an app that would knock Apple's socks off.

The scholarship awarded one free ticket to join the conference, which runs from June 10 to June 14 in San Francisco.

Those qualified to enter the competition were given the following assignment:

Use your creativity and coding skills to build an app that tells us about you. Your app should highlight development projects you've worked on, your educational and professional background, technical skills, and interests.

And that's just what Bhat did.

The app that Bhat developed, which he dubbed simply myWWDC, uses voice commands to navigate the iOS landscape. Just tell your device what you want to do or where you want to go, and it complies. The app can also read aloud text on your device.

Here's how it works: the app greets you with with a screen that prompts you to say hello. After it acknowledges your greeting, the app asks you to say the word "apple" to move to the next screen. Using just your voice, you can then navigate different screens that serve up information on Bhat's background, education, skills, and projects.

Bhat's WWDC scholarship-winning app.
Bhat's WWDC scholarship-winning app. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Issuing commands like "next" and "back" moves you forward or back a screen. You can even access a help menu simply by saying "help."

Bhat's app shares some features in common with Apple's Siri but goes at least a step further.

Siri requires you to press the Home button or lift the iPhone to your face to activate it. But Bhat's app continually listens for your voice without any trigger required, avoiding the need for touch interaction.

Bhat told me he got the idea for his voice recognition app after reading the guidelines asking the student developers to describe themselves. He came up with the concept of recording his own voice to interact with his phone.

"I've always been a big fan of alternative means of interaction," Bhat said. "The results are something similar to the Wii/Kinect/Leap motion. I don't plan to release the WWDC app (I don't think I can) but I do plan to use the voice recognition that was used in the app in my future projects."

Developing the app took Bhat around 16 to 17 hours over the course of five days. Setting aside enough time to create and submit it was a challenge.

"Apple purposely made a time constraint on submitting the application," Bhat said. "That being said, all the student devs were rushed to put everything aside to focus on creating a kickass app that would impress Apple. In my case, it became a balancing act between school and development."

Bhat said the scholarship win came as a surprise.

"Competition is always tough with some of the most intelligent students competing internationally for one of the 150 scholarship tickets," he said.

But Bhat is hardly a novice when it comes to developing mobile apps or tackling challenging projects.

A self-proclaimed teenage developer and entrepreneur, Bhat started coding in his freshman year of high school as a way to convince his parents to buy him a Macbook. Realizing that he possessed a certain flair as a programmer, he went on to built apps aimed at fellow high-school students.

For a summer project, Bhat created an educational organization called iSchoolerz, which offers customized mobile apps to schools. An app called iSTHS, designed by Bhat for his school, Santa Teresa High School, wound its way into the App Store last year after being approved by Apple.

Bhat's aptitude for programming also led him to the world of hackathons, which invite developers to create an app within a certain amount of time. At a 24-hour hackathon, he teamed up with a friend to build a motion tracking app called Ignyte.

Bhat's skills recently landed him a summer job at Kiip, a rewards network that lets consumers win actual rewards from companies for certain virtual achievements. But he didn't get the job the usual way.

Upon discovering a bug in Kiip's program that allowed him to redeem unlimited awards, Bhat documented the problem and informed the CEO at Kiip. A conversation between the two eventually led to a job offer for the young programmer. And Bhat apparently likes the work, describing his first week at the company as "amazing."