On Wednesday, July 13, the Koch Theater at the Lincoln Center was filled with bouncing teenagers and 20-somethings, waving flags, mugging for photographers and singing Kanye West’s “All Of The Lights.” These same kids, mere minutes before, had been upstairs giving poised interviews and demonstrating the creative technologies they developed to help solve problems like malaria, disability, road traffic accidents and more. What was the most innovation I had ever seen in one place had all of a sudden become the biggest dance party I’ve ever attended as we waited for the ceremony to start and to find out whose projects would win.
Microsoft’s Imagine Cup is an annual student technology competition that draws entries from all over the globe. I rolled into town for the worldwide finals, held this year in New York City. This is the competition's ninth year, and the first time the finals have been held in the U.S. Over 350,000 students ages 16 and up in 183 countries registered this year to compete in the Imagine Cup's nine competitions. Six of these are smaller, more specific challenges and didn’t have as large a presence at the finals. The big three, the holy trinity of the Imagine Cup, were game design (split up into mobile, web and Windows/Xbox), embedded development (building a separate, stand-alone device), and software development (a more general category). The top 100 teams (made up of 1 to 4 students each) in those three categories were invited to New York to showcase their projects. The top three teams in each category receive cash prizes, but the "Imagine Cup" itself goes to the winner in software development, last year received by Team Skeek from Thailand for their software that translated English into sign language in real time. Even for those who don't win, the exposure the Imagine Cup brings is proclaimed by several teams to be invaluable.
By the time I arrived, the competition had already been narrowed down to the top 21 teams, but the Times Square Marriott was still overrun with color-coded badge-wearing competitors, judges, Microsoft employees and international press. Banners hung around the hotel said “Make new friends. Gain new skills. Change the world.”
That’s the theme of the Imagine Cup: “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” In developing their projects, teams were asked to think about the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, international development goals with the deadline of 2015. Many of the teams did address such goals as environmental sustainability, or combating disease. But a lot of the students are more personally attached to their projects. There’s the legally blind student who developed a system for visually impaired students to take notes more easily. A team from China made a hands-free computer control software because a team member’s mother is disabled. “These students are brilliant,” said Suzi Levine, director of communications and education at Microsoft. “They come bringing in their life experiences.”
The projects themselves are amazing. They are all, perhaps unsurprisingly, designed with Microsoft technology. I did see a Wiimote in one of the projects, and Levine assured me that the only Microsoft product teams are required to use is the .Net framework for software design. Regardless, it was always Bing maps, not Google maps; always Windows Phone 7, not the iPhone.
All the finalists put on remarkably polished presentations, but the software developers were the rock stars of the Imagine Cup. Perhaps it’s because they were whittled down from a larger pool than the other categories, so the competition was steeper. Whatever the reason, people actually interrupted their presentations to applaud. Fellow competitors with yellow badges scattered throughout the packed ballroom stood up and whistled, and judges who earlier in the day were congratulating teams on “making it this far” were now saying things like “that was awesome” and “I can’t think of any questions.” When OneBuzz, a team that developed a malaria prediction software, finished their presentation, they raised their index fingers in the air in unison like a boy band signing out after a concert. Ladies and gentlemen, OneBuzz has left the building.
While not all the presentations had that stadium feel, every team, across categories, has the strangest combination of idealism and pragmatism. Coming in, I expected pie-in-the-sky ideas for projects that could never really be implemented, or maybe just a more grown-up science fair, all whizzes and bangs but no practicality. There was an undeniable “change the world” mentality pervading the event. The leader of a French team whose television system allows seniors to easily send and receive messages actually said “the return investment will be in smiles.”
But what might come across as naïveté is belied by the depth of their knowledge about what it will take to actually get their project on the market. Almost everyone has an impressively detailed business plan involving field testing or clinical trials. They know their target audience and who they need to pitch to for funding. And they have no illusions about the flaws of their product, easily rattling off a list of improvements yet to be made when the judges inevitably ask. Many of the students see the Imagine Cup as their chance to get venture funding, according to Levine. “We try to pour lighter fluid on that,” she says.
All of the lighter fluid, and money, that Microsoft has poured into the Imagine Cup culminated at the awards ceremony. There was an emcee (a Microsoft employee), a celebrity presenter (Eva Longoria, who proclaimed herself a “techie”) and fog machines. Every student was promised a Windows Phone 7.5 when it comes out. Crazy mounted lights zoomed over the kids before the show as they draped themselves in their countries’ flags and danced to situation-appropriate songs like “Empire State of Mind,” “Don’t Stop Believing” and something about it not being about the money.
And it really isn’t. Yes, the event is extravagant and yes, the winners are handed giant five-figure checks. But Levine tells me many of the game designers will go on to release their games for free. The presentations I saw were very concerned with their business models, but not so much with the profit. They wanted to get funding to be able to produce their projects. This competition is not the endgame; it is just a stop along the way.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.