At the afterparty for Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, a worldwide student technology competition, some of the smartest students in the world are singing “Like a Virgin.” One of them begs me to get him a beer; the line is impossibly long and I’ve finally reached the front. But really, you can’t blame them for wanting to unwind. It’s been a long week in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the students have largely neglected the sights in favor of long nights of coding and honing their business pitches.
It all culminated on Thursday, in the Alexandrinsky Theatre, at the lengthy and lavish awards ceremony hosted by the Doctor himself—Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame, so chosen because “we wanted someone who would embody the Imagine Cup qualities of creativity, ingenuity and a lot of last minute running about,” says John Scott Tynes, the Imagine Cup competition manager. Several teams walked away with cash prizes ranging from $3,000 to $50,000 to grow their businesses and improve their inventions. Winniers included a quick blood type test, an app that syncs music playback on your phone, and a social network for nonprofits and volunteers.
“We’re giving people a platform to showcase their idea and it seems to me that [considering] the quality of some of the ideas, if you weren’t to invest a little more in the research and the development, it would be a real shame,” Smith says.
Though there are approximately one million smaller awards and challenges that students compete for at the Imagine Cup, the main three categories are Games, World Citizenship and Innovation, the only real difference between the latter two being that World Citizenship projects are supposed to be altruistic and the Innovation ones don’t have to be (though they still sometimes are). The winner of the World Citizenship competition devised a tool that lets you quickly and easily test for blood types. The winning team in the Innovation competition created an app called soundSYNK that lets you sync up smartphones to play music simultaneously.
The focus of the Imagine Cup has shifted somewhat from pastyears when it really emphasized using technology to solve the world’s problems. There’s plenty of that remaining, but it seems that the competition is embracing inventiveness in all its forms, including projects that are really just for fun. There’s space for a game called “Piggy Spanker,” which is pretty much what it sounds like, to be in the same room as an app that diagnoses malaria.
Students are encouraged to treat their projects like startups–to come up with business plans and think not only about what their projects could theoretically achieve, but how to actually make them a reality. As Microsoft Corporate Vice President Steve Guggenheimer reminded the attendees at the awards ceremony, “Microsoft is a student-run startup…my hope for all of you is that you end up in the same place someday.” That never seemed to be far from the students’ minds. They are consummate salespeople, walking the floors during showcases, pulling you aside and asking “Have you heard about our project?”
I saw some amazing ideas at these showcases, both from teams that won and teams that didn’t, from all over the world. Team MaskedNinjas from Egypt created an app that turns a newspaper into a Harry Potter-esque experience, scanning text and bringing up relevant videos to enhance your reading. It isn’t magic though, just an algorithm.
Team M1R from Spain, which is really just one guy, Sergio Rivas Gomez, created one of the craziest projects I’ve ever seen at any Imagine Cup—an augmented reality helmet that has 3-D vision and responds to the movement of the wearer’s eyes, and her brain waves. When I wore it, and looked at a piece of paper with Russian text on it, the helmet translated it, displaying the text in English right below. It’s like Google Glass, except that, in Gomez’s view, it could do everything from give surgeons super-vision to create more immersive video games. “If he doesn’t win something, I’ll eat my hat,” I thought, because I actually think things like that. But he didn’t, so I guess I have to. It just goes to show how steep the competition is. As Matt Smith put it, “I was completely astounded by the level of some of these projects,.I was expecting, like, volcanoes that blow up and stuff.”
Volcanoes they are not. The projects use cutting-edge technology, mostly Microsoft’s, of course—these teams know which side of the bread their butter is on. But many of the app developers acknowledge the reality of the market and plan to roll out their products for Apple and Android technology too, in the future. Unlike a normal science fair, when these students pack up and go home, it’s hardly over. All of them are eager to tell me what’s next, what they’re improving for the next version, what business they’re going to talk to for funding. So it may not be long before we’re writing about some of these students again.