Microsoft Imagine Cup: Student Coders Compete For World Title

[PHOTO CREDIT: Microsoft]

On Sunday night, during the final round announcements at the Imagine Cup World Finals in New York City, the competitors really let loose. They bound into the Broadway Ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square wearing bold-colored matching team T-shirts, waving country flags, hooting, high-fiving, back-slapping, and chanting "USA! USA! USA!" or "Le-ba-non! Le-ba-non!" If you ask any of them what if feels like to a be a contender for a 2011 Imagine Cup world title, he or she will probably say it feels like being in the Olympics.

Of course, national pride and competitive spirit aside, the 400 Imagine Cup world competitors have little in common with Olympic athletes. They're university students, competing in events like software design, embedded development, and game design for a chance to win as much as $25,000. (In total, Microsoft will fork out $215,000 in prize money.) Forget javelin throws and triple toe loops. These competitors have mastered the Microsoft XNA Game Studio, the Silverlight plug-in, the Windows Phone 7 and the Windows Azure cloud-hosting platform.

This is the ninth year that Microsoft has organized what it calls "the world's premier student technology competition" and the first year the World Finals have been hosted in the United States. The event is all Microsoft all the time. Competitors wear name tags hung on lanyards printed with the Microsoft logo. They make last-minute fixes to presentations using free laptops installed with Windows and Office. In a lounge overlooking the multistory billboards of Times Square, they can "blow off steam" by playing games on Xbox 360 and Kinect consuls.

The Imagine Cup competition has expanded and morphed significantly since its early days. One thousand students from 25 countries signed up to compete in the first Imagine Cup in 2003 under the theme "Link between people, information, systems, and devices, using Web services and .NET as a springboard." The following year, organizers settled on the more inspirational theme "Imagine a world where smart technology makes everyday life easier" and registered 10,000 students from 90 countries. This year's challenge: "Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems." 380,000 students from 184 countries entered.

"That's about the size of the entire IEEE membership!" remarked Jon Rokne, a computer science professor at the University of Calgary and former IEEE board member, who helped judge entries in the software design category this year at the World Finals. "The magnitude of participation is remarkable."

Rokne said he was also impressed by the quality of students' projects. "I've seen 14 out of the 65 [software design projects] and they're all excellent," he said. It was Sunday afternoon, four hours before six finalists in the category were announced.

"Although," he added, "there were three projects that really spoke to me." For example, the three-member team from the tiny Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago developed software that helps teachers customize their methods according to kids' behavior in the classroom. Rokne said he thought that idea was "really cool."

Almost everyone I talked to at the competition had a favorite project or two that they were sure would make the final cut. For instance, Jacqueline Russell, Microsoft's academic lead for Western Europe, told me to keep an eye on the team from Finland, who built a software application that helps parents monitor young children's phone conversations and text messages for evidence of cyber-bullying. "Their user interface looks like a company's solution," she said. "I would buy that for my daughter!"

Rokne acknowledges that for many students, the Imagine Cup is about more than academics. "It enables young people to get together, have an idea, push it forward, and in some cases, have a complete and finished product that can be sold," he said. Last year, for example, a team from the Czech Republic made a mobile application that helps disaster rescue teams navigate and coordinate their efforts. The students are now working with a global non-profit to use their software to help track the spread of cholera in Haiti and monitor earthquake and tsunami damage in Japan.

During the final round announcements, I sat behind a team from Arizona State University in the U.S. whose project, called Note-Taker, I'd heard was particularly compelling. The team leader, David Hayden, is legally blind. He can see, but just barely. It used to be that when a math professor wrote notes on a chalkboard, Hayden had to find each equation with a monocular, then hunch over his notebook and write it down. Find, hunch, write. Find, hunch, write. The method was painfully slow; Hayden couldn't copy down the professor's notes fast enough.

"I had to drop my classes," he said. Frustrated, he built the first prototype of Note-Taker—a tablet PC connected to a motorized camera and installed with software that lets him use half the tablet screen to zoom in on the board and the other half to take notes with a stylus. His team is now on the third prototype of the device, and Hayden has since re-enrolled in and passed all his math courses.

"You once said it saved your math degree," interjects John Black Jr., the team's advisor.

"Yup, and it got me into a PhD program at [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]," Hayden said. In the software design category, Note-Taker was the first finalist announced.

When the announcements ended, there was more chanting, high-fiving, and picture taking as well as some hanging of chins and sympathetic patting of shoulders. As the teams exited the ballroom, the sound system blasted the Eurythmic's "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."

On Tuesday, the finalists will come back for the last round of presentations. The judges will announce the winners on Wednesday night.

Check out the complete list of Sunday night's finalists here.

To learn more about a specific project, look up the team's video here, where you can also vote in the People's Choice Awards.

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