Monday, July 12, 2010

Imagine Cup 2010 worldwide finals in Poland
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What an amazing week we had…



I’m just back from the Imagine Cup worldwide finals in Warsaw, Poland. Jan Potemans, our awesome Belgian ADE -the person at Microsoft Belgium who takes care of the relations with the academic world- took two teams to the finals of this huge technology contest. I led the Belgian Software Design team (Niels Derdaele, Jeroen Verhulst, Sebastiaan Polfliet and myself). The other Belgian team (Leslie Van Den Broeck, Jeroen Tavernier, Rob De Reycke, Jerry Verhoeven, their mentor and two other faculty members) took part in another competition, Game Development.

The Imagine Cup is the world’s premier technology contest for students. There are three main categories –software design, game development and embedded development- and some awards. Software design is the biggest category -68 countries were represented by a team in Warsaw- and the winning team in this category wins the Imagine Cup (I mean the actual cup) and USD 25 000. A total of about 325 000 students participated in the Imagine Cup 2010, about 400 of them made it to the worldwide finals. It was our honor to represent Belgium.

Most students stayed in the Novotel hotel, where Microsoft had installed a registration desk and replaced all Macs with PCs (yep, I noticed). Presentations in the first rounds took place in the Intercontinental hotel and the Palace of Culture and Science (pictured below), where all teams could showcase their projects too. On Wednesday the showcase moved to the opera building where the finalist presentations and the closing event were held.



The opening ceremony on Saturday evening took place on a stage in front of the Palace of Culture and Science. Jon Perera -GM of Microsoft Education- did most of the talking, together with Waldemar Pawlak -Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy- and Jacek Murawski –GM of Microsoft Poland. Zakopower, a Polish folk music group, added some music to the opening. Video below, courtesy of Microsoft (yes, I have seen me too).



Sunday morning we had a few briefings by awesome people like Lisa Harper and Rob Miles (our captain). Something that was immediately clear during these briefings was that the event was very well organized. Picture courtesy of Niels Derdaele.



After these briefings we received a timetable that said we had to do our round one presentation at the Intercontinental at 4 pm. This was a huge relieve, because we had still some work to do on our presentation. A few days earlier we had had a coaching session at Microsoft Belgium, where general manager Phillip Vandervoort and director of DPE Luc Van de Velde had given us a ton of very useful feedback on our initial presentation. We had been working late at night to implement most of this feedback and were happy to have a few extra hours to practice the revamped presentation.

Then it was time to present. We checked in at the Palace of Culture and Science and were escorted to the Intercontinental hotel by a Polish MSP. While we were waiting and having a coffee in front of the presentation room, a girl came to us screaming that we had betrayed her. We looked at her a bit flabbergasted, wondering who she was and why she was looking more nervous than us. It turned out that she was another Polish MSP who was supposed to escort us to the room. But still, thank you, Kamila and all other Polish MSPs, for helping with the organization of this giant event, good job, well done. In the presentation room we had some time to set everything up with the assistance of the MSPs and crew and then the judges appeared. In round one we only had to present for seven people: four very kind judges; Kinga -an MSP who was keeping track of time; Jan -our ADE- and Caroline Phillips.



Our presentation went well; the judges were kind and asked good question, we gave good answers. Our project was a bit underwhelming and too basic to stand any chance in the competition, but we did a good job presenting it. After the presentation Kinga –one of those very kind MSPs- shot a video of our first reactions when leaving the room. The excitement of the moment made Sebastiaan unable to summarize the project he had just been demoing, made me talk already about going to the finals and left Jeroen unchanged (he was still talking about beer). That makes for one funny video, for your viewing pleasure (courtesy of Kinga Sysiak):



On Sunday evening we already knew we were out of the competition. All we know is that out of the 68 teams, we didn’t make it to the final twelve.



Monday, we decided to explore Warsaw. We did a little walk and found a war museum; they were closed but had an impressive collection of planes, helicopters and tanks in their “garden”. Just one of many pictures I took, so you get the idea.



Monday afternoon we had to be at our booth, because the press was visiting the showcase. Big names like Jon Perera and Kimberly Voltero visited our booth (that reminds me that if we are ever again at the Imagine Cup finals we need to practice a short demo for the showcase too, those first tries weren’t very good).



Monday night the other Belgian team -the gaming team- was selected top three. From then on it was up to them to defend the Belgian honor -something they’ve done great, but more on that later.



Tuesday was the culture day, when we visited the castle of Pultusk. A great pianist kicked off this day of relaxation with some music and some jokes. Then we were free to choose what activities to do: making cheese, pottery, wood sculpting, kayaking, traditional Polish dance… It was a great and sunny day. Although, on the way back to Warsaw we discovered what a Polish thunderstorm looks like: very wet…

   

Living picture with Daniel van Soest; Tom Verhoeff –the mentor of the Dutch team, in orange– and some people of Kenyan and Ugandan national TV.

On Thursday, we attended over eight hours of finalist presentations in the opera building. Three teams in gaming, six teams in embedded development and six teams in software design each did a 20 minute presentation, followed by a 15 minute Q&A. The quality of these projects was really, really high and a lot of the presentations where incredibly good. I’ve seen speakers who are a lot better than most keynote speakers on events like TechEd. I’ve seen presentations that could easily compete with those presented by top presenters like Al Gore and Steve Jobs. I was blown away by what these students managed to do in their spare time. I’ve seen projects and listened to stories that moved me deeply. For the first time I was truly convinced that students really can change the world and that technology really can help solve the world’s toughest problems.



On Thursday we had to spend a few more hours at the showcase, in the opera building this time. Quite some people stopped at our booth for a short demo of our project. Some of the judges came to say hi too, pictured below is the team with Sally from Argentina and Felienne from The Netherlands, two very kind judges. Picture courtesy of Sally Buberman.



Then it was time for the big award ceremony, the World Festival. First the award winners were announced; then the winners in gaming, embedded and software and finally Poland passed the flag to the USA. The Imagine Cup 2011 finals will be in New York. My team is hiring, if you think you can help, if you have a great idea, if you have a real talent (does not have to be technical, we need designers/artists too, male/female, Flemish/Walloon…) and want to go to New York and have the experience of a lifetime, let me know.



Before the flag was passed, we received a video message from Michelle Obama, the First Lady. And oh, Jon Perera announced that all 400 finalists are getting a Windows Phone 7 as soon as they are available, the crowd went nuts. The entire ceremony was streamed live and is still available here.

Message from Michelle Obama:



The winners

Software Design

1st Place: Skeek, Thailand
They film a lesson using a webcam, do facial detection and speech recognition and translate what is being said to sign language. The text is displayed in a speech bubble on the video and the signs are shown on a 3D model. Impressive!

2nd Place: TFZR Team, Serbia
An interface to control the PC with your brain: send text messages, use Facebook… This team told the story of how they enabled someone who had never been able to communicate before to use a PC to do just that, communicating. Wow

3rd Place: OneBeep, New Zealand
Developed a protocol to broadcast files (for example applications for OLPC) over AM radio. How is it possible no one has thought of that before?

Embedded Development

1st Place: SmarterME, Taiwan
They developed a meter that can detect what devices are switched on in your house. Why you ask? Well, this is what their software can tell you: “Device x has been on for y minutes, that costs USD z. You might want to replace it with device u, which costs USD v and it takes w days to return the investment”. Amazing.

2nd Place: MCPU, Russia
A robot, talking Russian, driving around and moving arms up and down. Supposed to teach children exercises and stories/songs. Not that enthusiastic about this one…

3rd Place: GERAS, France
An intelligent floor. The system automatically calls the emergency service if the (elderly) occupant falls on the floor and is unable to get up again. Good idea, but I see some deal-breaking issues with their solution.

Game Design

1st Place: By Implication, Philippines
Best presentation. Ever.

2nd Place: NomNom Productions, Belgium
Well done guys! And M’Boko.

3rd Place: Gears Studio, France
Maybe try to avoid the shooting next time? I liked the level editor.

At the same time of the Imagine Cup –the world cup for technology-, the football world cup was happening is South Africa. A video:



Oh, are you wondering what we’ve built? We’ve built a social network for partnerships. Learn more on www.biamori.be. Here are the slides of our presentation:


My pictures are available here and below.

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I would like to end by thanking everybody who made this week so wonderful: Phillip Vandervoort, Luc Van de Velde, Jan Potemans, Lisa Harper, Jon Perera, Rob Miles, my team, the Polish MSPs, all other competitors and many, many others.

Keep changing the world!