Fueled by innovation, excitement and no small amount of regularly restocked purple candy, 49 groups of students from around the world flocked to Microsoft’s flagship Redmond campus this week to share their plans and compete for tens of thousands of dollars.
Students from six continents reached the final stage of the Imagine Cup, presenting Microsoft Azure-based projects ranging from mobile apps and virtual reality contraptions to medical imaging devices and an intelligent prosthetic. The products addressed an even broader range of issues: an app that monitors the development of eggs, software that connects water tank operators with consumer suppliers, an underwater GPS for scuba divers.
“Today’s student developers are tomorrow’s student innovators,” said Charlotte Yarkoni, a corporate vice president responsible for Imagine Cup. “We have a variety of programs that we run throughout the year, but Imagine Cup is the fun, showcasing aspect by which we get to interact.”
Fifteen teams advanced directly from the first round into the semifinals, with three more joining them after making 90-second pitches with no demos or presentations. American team Vinculum roused an 8 a.m. crowd with an original, continuous rap promoting their image-processing app that aims to reunite separated refugee families.
Vinculum performed their way into the rigorous semifinal round, where teams presented not only the technology they harness but an analysis of competitors, regulatory roadblocks, business plans and distribution models.
SmartARM breezed through that session and Wednesday’s finals, earning the grand prize of over $130,000 in cash and grants. Using machine learning and cloud storage, the Canadian project created a prosthetic hand and forearm equipped with a camera that can pick up and drop objects — smartARM demonstrated with a set of keys — simply by flexing a bicep.
The smartARM team topped ICry2Talk and Mediated Ear to win the title, held at the Four Seasons and highlighted by the attendance of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Olympic champion snowboarder Chloe Kim.
Officials also awarded $15,000 to winners in three categories. But the competitive results were often secondary, and not just to the 43 teams that left without a grand prize. Teams interacted with each other regularly, business opportunities abounded with outside judges and Microsoft leaders, and the purple candy routinely pulled students in.
In 16 years of the Imagine Cup, more than 2 million students from 190 countries have participated in at least the earliest stages of the competition. And, Yarkoni said, their ideas are far from theoretical.
“These are all hugely impactful projects,” she added. “They are actually valuable across multiple regions and multiple societies. I continue to be impressed with the thought process, in terms of the types of opportunities that (these) students are finding as things they can go actually help make better.”