Brilliant Teenagers, World-Saving Tech and Dance Parties at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup

Teams from all over the world descend on New York City to launch their innovations: a note-taking system for visually impaired students, an in-car device that monitors driver safety and more.

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.

Click here to launch a gallery of the winners and highlights of the Microsoft Imagine Cup.

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.

Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals

Finalists in the top three categories spent the next-to-last day of competition pitching and demoing their projects in front of a panel of judges who grilled them with questions. Teams were judged on how well they adhered to the theme, how well they communicated that their project could make a viable business, and how good of a project it was.

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.

Team Hermes (Ireland) – 1st Place, Software Design

Team Hermes’ project, also called Hermes, is an in-car device that can plug into the diagnostics port on the dashboard of any car manufactured since the year 2000. It monitors a driver’s behavior, keeping track of things such as speed, RPM and G-force, and sends that information to the cloud, where it is analyzed. That data is sent to a smartphone application on both the driver and the vehicle owner’s phones, so anxious parents sending their teens out for the first time can rest a little easier. The device beeps, warning drivers when they are being unsafe, and also if a dangerous road is approaching. Drivers can track their journeys on the Hermes software and see if they are improving and how they compare safety-wise to other drivers. Team Hermes has been in talks with the Irish Road Safety Authority to develop their product. They were also approached by an American insurance company while they were in town for the Imagine Cup.

NTHUCS (Taiwan) – 1st Place, Embedded Development

NTHUCS’ project RIGHT! This Way, built using the Windows Embedded operating system, aims to help people safely exit buildings in the case of a fire. They hooked up several wireless sensors that detect fire and smoke to an e-box that determines safe escape routes base on information gathered from the sensors in real time. Lasers and LED lights then point the way out of the building so people can easily follow them to a safe exit. The team was inspired to create this project by a building fire that occurred in Taiwan in 2010.

Geekologic (France) – 1st place, Game Design (Mobile)

Geekologic’s game Brainergy, built for Windows Phone 7 with XNA Game Studio, aims to teach players how to collect and harness renewable energy. Players are confronted with a polluted city and have to move converters and deflectors to capture seven different types of renewable energy in order to clean it up. Each level is a different city, and players have to adjust as they realize some converters work better than others. See a video demonstration of the game here. The team is currently working with Pohlm Studio to get the game on the market. They also want to expand it from just Windows Phone 7 to iPhone and Android by this October.

Cellardoor (Poland) – 1st Place, Game Design (web)

The Book of Elm, developed by team Cellardoor, is an interactive storybook that the user engages with using shadows created by an object held in front of a web camera, or manipulated with a touch screen or mouse. Built for the web with Microsoft Silverlight, The team said the goal of the game was to get children to associate books with fun. The story of the book follows a cute little guy named Elm, who emphasizes the taking of simple actions to care for the environment. as the user reads through the book, interactive challenges arise.The team hopes to simultaneously instill a love of reading and an awareness of environmental issues. See a video demonstration of the Book of Elm here

Signum Games (Brazil) – 1st Place, Game Design (Windows/Xbox)

Sort of a humanitarian SimCity, Signum Games’ UCan has players volunteering in a community. It was built for Windows 7 using XNA Game Studio. As the player does more good deeds, they make volunteers out of the people in the town. The volunteers then run around (though a matrix built into the game keeps them from running into each other), helping build schools and hospitals, clean up litter and combat outbreaks of swine flu. The team hopes to get their game installed on computers in public schools. See a video demonstration of the game here.

Endeavour_Design (Romania) – 3rd Place, Embedded Development

autoRobot by Endeavour_Designs aims to do a better job at addressing the problem of driver fatigue than those loud bumps on the side of the highway. They were inspired by the way children learn reflexes, said team member Juliana Valcea. A learning algorithm teaches their prototype robot not to run into things, even when a human commander is instructing it to do so. When integrated into a car, the system would be activated in the event that a driver fell asleep at the wheel. There is a manual override that the driver can activate if they wake up. The team is in talks with a German car company to put the same kind of functions on a different board, creating a system similar to the prototype that can be installed in cars.

Team Note-Taker (United States) – 2nd Place, Software Design

When David Hayden took on a math major at Arizona State University, his vision impairment made it difficult for him to keep up with the notes. He ended up having to withdraw from some of his classes. “I’m a 4.0 student,” he said, “so this was unacceptable.” Existing aids weren’t cutting it, so he built his own system. Using a camera and a tablet PC, the Note-Taker software displays a camera feed on one side of the screen that users can pan, zoom, pause and rewind. On the other side, students can take handwritten or typed notes. The system also records audio and video and syncs it up with the notes, so students can review bits of the lecture they missed later. The first generation prototype of the Note-Taker’s camera was built with store-bought parts; the second, with a Skippy peanut butter jar. The team is now on their third generation prototype, the casing of which is 3D printed, but to move to getting the device manufactured they will have to design something that can be produced more cheaply.

OneBuzz (New Zealand) – Finalist, Software Design

Vinny Lohan has had malaria twice in his life, and his mother had it when she was pregnant with him. So he and his teammates developed OneBuzz, a module-based software that helps track outbreaks of malaria, the shipment of drugs to different areas, climate and more, using information gathered from satellite images and texts sent in by researchers and health workers, among other things. It analyzes all of this data to try and accurately predict when and where outbreaks will occur, as well as when areas will run out of drugs, so that pre-emptive action can be taken. The team developed this software after spending a month in India and assessing what the need of users was. They plan to do field testing in the Bihar region of India before deploying it nationwide with the help of the India Institute of Malaria Research.

Team Dragon (United States) – 3rd Place, Game Design (Mobile)

While working with the Abramson Center for the Future of Health, Pierre Elias had the idea of creating a video game to make keeping track of their asthma fun for children. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to make a video game. So he assembled a team from a game design class at Rice University and gave them “complete creative freedom,” he said. And so Azmo the Dragon was born. Kids breathe into a spirometer which monitors their lung function and makes the dragon on their phone screen breathe fire. Every time they defeat a boss level, their lung function is recorded and that information can then be given to their doctor. The team is currently seeking grants and hopes to go to a clinical trial soon. They are also toying with the idea of integrating the spirometer into a cellphone case, but it could prove difficult. “No one’s merged this kind of hardware before,” Elias said.