A technology whiz kid who grew up in the Johnson County suburbs stands to reap part of the $1.1 billion that Amazon.com last week agreed to pay for the Internet gaming company Twitch.
Kyle Vogt, a 2004 graduate of Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, is a significant shareholder in the video game streaming site. He was also a co-founder of a company called Justin.tv, which evolved into Twitch.
That’s an impressive enough resume for Vogt, 29, who grew up attending public schools in the Olathe and Shawnee Mission school districts. He sharpened his talents in science and technology while competing in high school robotics competitions, which led him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for college and then on to Silicon Valley.
Vogt, who now lives in San Francisco, said in an interview that while several companies had inquired recently about buying Twitch, Amazon made the most sense “in terms of how they would treat the company, its employees and their strategic vision for Twitch.”
In Twitch, Amazon will be acquiring the most popular website for watching people play games. Amazon highly values the eyeballs and the attention of the more than 55 million unique visitors who during July viewed more than 15 billion minutes of content on Twitch. Gamers can play together, watch the pros play to pick up tips, tune in to spoken commentary channels and register their written comments, all in real time.
Vogt is not basking in the success of Twitch. Indeed, even before Amazon’s offer, he had already moved on to his next challenge as founder and chief executive of a company called Cruise Automation.
Vogt described Cruise’s technology as being “the first highway autopilot for your car.” It’s not quite a self-driving automobile, as Google is working on, but Vogt called it a step along that path.
He said Cruise hopes to deliver its first system at a cost of about $10,000 in the first half of 2015. It’s designed to retrofit an existing car.
“I’ve tried to do autonomous vehicles two or three times now,” he said. “Once when I was in high school and again when I was at MIT with a Ford pickup made in conjunction with a government-sponsored challenge.”
The combination of computer programming and mechanical engineering skills that Vogt brings to the Cruise project is hardly surprising to those who knew him when he was growing up in Olathe and Shawnee.
Vogt’s father, banker Charles Vogt, said he first realized his son had special talents when he was a youngster.
“When we got a new computer with new software, I’d try to work it myself without looking at the manual,” Charles Vogt said. “Kyle goes through hundreds of pages of the manual and hundreds of pages looking up software program information on the computer, spending hours absorbing that information. As a result, he was doing C++ programming when he was in the seventh grade … with no formal training.”
In high school, Kyle Vogt joined the robotics team at Shawnee Mission North because Northwest didn’t have a team.
The team’s coach, now retired after 35 years of teaching, was automotive and computer technology instructor Bill Kirchner.
Kirchner called Vogt “one of the most multitalented students I have ever seen.”
“He had a high IQ and skills sets to do pretty much anything,” Kirchner said. “He could pick up things so quickly. He was a good worker, a good team player and a problem solver.”
The Shawnee Mission North team did not do well in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition during Vogt’s two years on the team, but it improved from year to year.
North students recruited Vogt after learning he had participated in the “BattleBot” competition featured on television by the Comedy Channel.
In those days, Charles Vogt recalled, the family basement was full of arc welders and solder guns.
“When we took his robot to Stanford in 2000 when he was 15 or 16, all the students and faculty came out of their classrooms to see this BattleBot,” he said. “Kyle was way ahead of even these college students.”
After high school, Kyle Vogt attended MIT but left during his junior year to take a job with the team that eventually created Justin.tv and then Twitch.
“We’re traditional parents,” said Charles Vogt, “who want that parchment on the wall that claims he’s a college graduate. But we had to live with the realization that the parchment on the wall is not the norm in the tech world. It’s the application of knowledge that’s more important than the parchment.”
The three former Yale students who hired Kyle Vogt wanted his help in the 2007 launch of Justin.tv. Vogt’s role was to help develop high-quality, live-streaming video that could be uploaded to the Internet..
“No one had come up with a way to convey high-quality video and audio and upload it immediately to the Internet … so he satisfied that need for them,” his father said.
Despite solving the technical challenge, the company did not attract large numbers of viewers. So Justin.tv morphed into a platform whereby viewers could broadcast their own content for others to see. That concept eventually led to the creation of Twitch, and gaming content became the most popular.
“We took it from an early experiment and turned it into a media giant,” Vogt said. “When Twitch took off, I returned to my roots in robotics and self-driving cars.”
Cruise’s system features sensors that rest on the car’s rooftop to direct steering, actuators that sit alongside the driver’s leg and control steering and braking and a computer brain in the trunk that controls the system. Although it won’t completely drive the car (and for now the system is available only for Audi models A4 and S4), the technology can take over the driving on a highway and prevent accidents.
While the need for a driverless car might not be apparent to a Kansas Citian, someone who sits for hours in California traffic jams can more easily appreciate it.
“If you can think farther out, there are a lot of other potential benefits,” Vogt said. “If your car drives itself completely, you may not need to own one. You push a button and one shows up and takes you where you want to go. That means less need for parking lots, and that means cities can be shaped in different ways. It really transforms the way society works and frees up hours now being wasted behind the wheel.”