Imagine Cup 2009
This summer I participated as a judge at the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2009 finals in Egypt, and I am finally taking time to reflect on my experiences.
You can think of the Imagine Cup as the Olympic Games for Software. It is an amazing event for student developers to compete in categories such as Software Design, Embedded Development, Game Development, Robotics and Algorithm, IT Challenge, Mash Up, Photography, Short Film and Design. After several local rounds of selection, Microsoft invited the top teams from around the world to compete in Egypt for the finals.
Cairo was amazing. Everyone visited historic places such as the Citadel with the Mosque of Mohamed Ali, the Al-Azhar park and the Giza Pyramids. The opening ceremony took place outdoors at the Citadel, and I was amazed by the atmosphere there - you could feel the history of the location and the youth of the students merging in a fantastic energy. I felt I was the one who was lucky to be there with them. Check out this video to see what I am talking about.
Then the competition started. I judged the Embedded Development competition and I was surprised by the variety of projects and the achievements of the students. After the first rounds, finalists were given hardware (an iCOP eBox) to implement their ideas, which, according to the theme of this year’s edition of Imagine Cup, were about using technology to solve the world’s toughest issues. Students were challenged to develop a technical solution that would help achieving one or several of the UNESCO’s Millenium Development Goals .
During the first day, 20 finalist teams competing in the Embedded Development category demonstrated their projects to the judges. The motivation, stress and tension I could feel were really intense. The Canadian team faced big problems with their demo material: their bags didn’t make it on the same flight and arrived the following day. They spent the night before the competition putting together their automated green house prototype and literally finished it five minutes before their demonstration. The French team also faced big challenges getting their special wheelchair through the customs. The Egyptian team had put together a great system leveraging RFID to prevent medical errors in hospitals, but had huge problems presenting it because of the language barrier. The Turkish team invented a great system that would use geo-localization to improve the farming processes at a very competitive price, automatically spreading the right amount of fertilizer needed on specific parts of a field. Their presentation was perfectly prepared, their demo worked well, but when the time for questions came, the language barrier got in their way. Through it all, the students had smiles on their faces.
I don’t think I saw two similar projects. All finalists addressed problems such as health, poverty and hunger, but with different perspectives, cultures and origins - which is what made this competition so rich. You can see some of these projects in this video of the first day of competition. You can also see here and here the stress, tension and excitement of the competition, as well as the student’s personal journeys through the Imagine Cup experience.
After intense competition, the judges finally narrowed the finalists down to three winning projects:
Team Intellectronics, Ukraine – 3rd place Embedded Development competition
Team Intelletronics’s project addressed the lack of adequate medicine available in some regions and in situations such as natural disasters. They created different types of wireless medical sensors that allow efficient monitoring of several patients in a remote location or during a natural disaster. The Ukrainian team demonstrated that using Windows Embedded they could have a low-cost, reliable system that leveraged communication stacks available in an embedded operating system along with a number of already integrated features such as display support, printing and webcam support .The architecture they chose was also a key point in the judges’ decision. A distributed system with wireless specialized entities talking to each other appeared to be a good solution, providing flexibility and extensibility.
Team iSee, China – 2nd place Embedded Development competition
Team iSee came with disturbing numbers: more than 90% of the 161 million people that are visually impaired live in developing countries and don’t have access to educational materials, communication tools, etc. In order to make technology accessible to the blind, the team proposed iSee, which digitizes reading materials, such as books and news, transforms them into Braille or speech, and outputs them via Human-Computer Interface devices specially designed for the visually impaired. Their system also enables visually impaired users to enjoy instant communication with others online, both visually impaired and not, multiplying the experience of learning and communicating. The prototype they presented was really great - it looked like a final product!
Team Wafree, Korea – 1st place Embedded Development competition
The Korean team proposed a device meant to improve the process of farming… using insects! Because Coleoptera Lucanidaeare insects whose larvae are high in protein and other essential minerals, it appears to be much more efficient to farm these insects than to try to farm grain in countries where it is hard to find water, fertile land, and manpower. Their studies demonstrate that you could feed a family of four people twice a day with a single system. Farming these insects is not easy, as they are sensitive to the environment and require specific humidity and temperature. The eBox gathers temperature and humidity information from sensors and controls the watering and venting systems accordingly to reach the correct values.
Not only was their idea innovative, feasible, and extremely well demonstrated, but they also thought through every single detail. They addressed how to monitor the devices used in remote locations with advanced communication, how to acquire funding, and how to evolve the device into a viable business.
You can see the video of the closing ceremony at the Pyramids in Giza and some of the winning projects.
Looking back at these projects, along with previous editions of Imagine Cup, I have the feeling that embedded technologies are evolving at an accelerated pace. Having more and more software in devices and having commercial componentized fully featured operating systems running them help create improved devices at a faster rate.
I always thought that a good technology has to be simple and efficient. Today, I would add that it has to be flexible, as the brains that will use and improve it have great ideas they want to implement. Embedded systems need to be robust, componentized, and connected. They need to provide the right tools and features so that instead of reinventing the wheel, developers can leverage existing technology and focus on solutions. All of the projects I saw at Imagine Cup this year leveraged the embedded operating system and its features to concentrate on the problem they were trying to solve.
Another important thing to me is that Embedded seems to be something almost everyone at the competition now knows at least a little about. A few years ago I could hear everywhere: “Embedded? What do you mean by Embedded?” This year, Imagine Cup 2009 students from the other divisions were not surprised that embedded was the second biggest division, following software design. Students are not only aware of embedded, but really like the flexibility, compatibility, and connectivity of it. For me that is another sign of the tremendous growth embedded is experiencing at the moment, and I like it.
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