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April 24, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Students put tech to good use in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup contest

Corrected version

(This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times April 24, 2012. – Janet I. Tu)

ImagineCup.jpgIt looked almost like a scene from an old-time video arcade: teenagers and young adults crowded around computer screens and displays, buzzing excitedly.

But instead of “Donkey Kong” or “Pac-Man,” students played on-screen shooting games that obliterated diseases, or they waved their arms in front of a Kinect sensor to change the slope of a line on a screen and the math equation that generated the line.

It was the U.S. finals of the Imagine Cup, Microsoft’s student-technology competition, now in its 10th year. Teams of high-school and college students from around the world competed Monday in using technology to help improve education, health care, the environment and other pressing issues.

“The level of creativity seems to get bigger and bolder every year,” said Mark Hindsbo, Microsoft’s vice president of U.S. developer and platform evangelism.

This year, in the U.S., about 113,000 people registered in the competition. Twenty-two teams were chosen for the U.S. finals.

Worldwide, it’s not unusual for the Imagine Cup to draw a quarter-million registrants each year. Each region’s winner in the software-design category advances to the world finals in Sydney, Australia, from July 6 to 10.

In addition, in the U.S. a people’s choice winner — chosen via online voting from the software-design and game-design categories — will attend the world finals. (You can vote here through May 19.)

It’s not unusual for winners or finalists to get a chance to launch their project as a business.

Wilson To, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, was a finalist last year and is returning as a mentor for one of the competing teams.

Last year, his Team Lifelens created a Windows Phone app that would allow health-care workers to diagnose malaria using an image of a blood smear. Since then, the team has won an Imagine Cup grant, giving them $75,000, software and computing support from Microsoft, access to resources from Microsoft BizSpark, which helps tech startups; and connections to investors and NGOs.

This year, most of the U.S. entrants focused on health issues. A good portion also addressed environmental and educational challenges.

Hindsbo says he’s noticed in recent years that many entrants are incorporating the cloud and mobile devices into projects, as well as Microsoft’s Kinect motion and voice sensor.

Such was the case with KinectMath, a team from the University of Washington-Bothell. The team, including students Jebediah Pavleas and Jack Chang, displayed a project that uses Kinect to manipulate mathematical concepts. Users can step in front of the sensor and manipulate, say, a parabola by waving their arms.

The idea is to make math fun.

The initial target for such a project is middle-schoolers, but there’s no reason the technology couldn’t be adapted for elementary or high school, even college students, Pavleas said.

Pavleas said he was nervous and excited: “This is the first time we’ve made software that people actually use,” he said.

KinectMath ended up taking fourth place in the software-design category.

Taking first in that category was Team FlashFood, made up of four Arizona State University students — Jake Irvin, Eric Lehnhardt, Katelyn Keberle and Steven Hernandez — and faculty adviser Richard Filley. It marks the second year in a row that an Arizona State team has won the category.

The team came up with a real-time food-recovery solution that uses Web applications and smartphones to coordinate food deliveries to people in need. When an organization has food about to go to waste — say, leftovers from an event — the organization can register that with the system.

Volunteers who also are registered with the system will receive instant notifications, arrange to pick up the food and deliver it to shelters, individuals or others who need it. The goal is to avoid food going to waste in communities.

“We’re able to solve a problem with hunger and food waste that couldn’t have been solved a couple of years ago without the instant digital communication available from the combo of smartphones, websites and mass text-messages services,” team captain Lehnhardt said in a statement.

In addition to Team FlashFood, winners were also announced for the game design-Windows/Xbox category — won by Dr. Fishbowl from Carnegie Mellon University — and the game design-mobile category — won by Drexel Dragons from Drexel University.

(Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times. From left, Paul Pachikara, 9, and brother Siddhartha, 8, of Redmond, play a game called Credit/No Credit developed by University of Washington-Bothell team members Craig Nishina and Peter Luangrath at the Microsoft Imagine Cup’s U.S. finals.)

Information in this story was corrected April 30, 2012. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the people’s choice winner in the U.S. finals of the Imagine Cup will compete in the Imagine Cup world finals in Australia in July. The U.S. people’s choice winner will attend but not compete in the Imagine Cup world finals.

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