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My imaginary friends

Four Canterbury University students take their masterplan to solve our traffic woes to Paris, competing against 60 other countries for Microsoft’s Imagine Cup—and cure a writer’s cynicism along the way. By Gena Tuffery
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Photograph by Paul Lo. Manipulated by Adrian Clapperton

Four Canterbury University students take their masterplan to solve our traffic woes to Paris, competing against 60 other countries for Microsoft’s Imagine Cup

Microsoft’s Imagine Cup website asked me to imagine the world through cold, hard, applied optimism. Or, in Bill Gates’ words: “Imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment.” I tried, but I couldn’t take it seriously.

Perhaps I’m a fringe case. The day before leaving for the students-save-the-world competition, I turned down a plastic bag at the supermarket. The packer smiled and said, “Saving the environment?” I smiled back—genuinely, because I’m resigned to our fate—“I think it’s a bit late.” Packer: “It’s never too late!” Me: “We’re all going to die.”

Hey, you can keep reading—this isn’t going to be a diatribe of downers. In fact, the Imagine Cup turned out to be a very effective form of existential Prozac. But not nearly as much as its host city: if you’re gonna thaw a cynic, send her to Paris.

Then, take one silk-gloved handful of beautiful boulevards, sunsets over the Seine and cleverly clothed women. Add 370 of the world’s biggest geeks and incubate for five days. Voila! A world that looks, if not rose-tinged, then a shade of grey so light it’s almost lavender.

Four people considerably aided this change in perception: together, they make up Team Phoenix, New Zealand’s newest noir-draped hope for our future. And US$240,000 in prize money.

Two-hundred-and-forty grand would buy a lot of Canterbury Draught—but these aren’t your typical get-drunk-and-burn-the-furniture type of Canterbury University students. Although team leader Louis Sayers mentions their efficient public transport entry would “be really useful to go into town for a good session of binge drinking”, he’s only joking. I know this because his girlfriend, Janina Voigt, is also on the team, and she says: “Whatever Louis, you’re just trying to be cool.”

Whether our entrants are into binge drinking or not, their work is inspired by something unusual, most likely IQ. Two of the team members, Voigt and Stephen Fitchett, are officially geniuses—and you wouldn’t want Sayers or fourth team member Yugan Yuganeethen competing against you in a pub quiz either.

Their combined brain by-product, Taxibus, is a vehicle-ready software package that uses a flexible algorithm to solve Christchurch’s—and potentially the world’s—transport problems. If you don’t know what a flexible algorithm is, thank you and don’t worry. According to Microsoft’s director of academic initiatives, Joe Wilson, it’s because “you’re not qualified to know”.

So let’s get it from someone who is: “An algorithm is a step-by-step recipe for a computer to follow,” says Voigt. And this particular algorithm drives a very useful system.

Book a shared Taxibus via web or text and you’ll get an automatic response telling you the time you have to finish your pre-town drink. And not the dispatcher’s standard “be there soon”, either. More like—or more exactly—two minutes 54 seconds.

Take one silk-gloved handful of beautiful boulevards, sunsets over the Seine and cleverly clothed women. Add 370 of the world’s biggest geeks and incubate for five days. Voila! A world that looks, if not rose-tinged, then a shade of grey so light it’s almost lavender

You’d better scull. Tardy humans won’t be given the chance to muddy Team Phoenix’s impressive stats; if you’re not waiting, the Taxibus will continue on its pre-programmed route. This won’t affect the profits, the Imagine Cup judges are assured, because the small flat fee—$3.60 without subsidies—would be deducted from your account when you order.

Taxibus’ ‘dynamic routing’ is much more effective at taxi fetching than the usual stream of operator abuse crackling through the radio system. That’s because it calculates the best route and vehicle based on the shortest waiting and travel times of both new and existing passengers—and factors in optimal environmental savings while it’s at it.

The idea is clearly roadworthy—which is just as well, as real-world application is a big part of the judges’ assessment. Team Phoenix has a meeting booked in with Christchurch mayor Bob Parker to discuss Taxibus’ viability as an alternative to the five-times-more-expensive public transport option, light rail. It might not be as hard a sell as it sounds—Parker is already a vocal supporter of the project.

But, if ‘all’ Taxibus does is help save the environment, these students will be happy. Showing that 21-year-old idealism is alive and smiling, Yuganeethen says: “It would be nice if we got rich, but it’s definitely not our primary motivation. If someone else takes our idea and runs with it, at least we’ve helped the world.”

Alas, helping the world is not enough to please everybody, and Team Phoenix does not make it to the final round. Who does? The usuals: China, Singapore, Korea, Russia and the obligatory host team inclusion, France. And some unusuals: Slovakia, Portugal, Brazil, Hungary, South Africa, Croatia and, of bloody course, the eventual winners: the Wallabies.

Admittedly, the green-and-golds’ idea is a goodie. In an attempt to counteract their country’s major ecological problem—being the driest land mass on Earth—they’ve come up with a way to monitor water usage on farms. It’s a good place to start; 66 percent of Australia’s water supply is used for agriculture, largely because Aussie farms have a tendency to go for miles.

So the thinking behind the Smart Operational Agriculture toolKit, or SOAK, had to be as big as the continent. In fact, something like this: a system that monitors water supplies to livestock and crops without limiting the integration of any other component, so a farmer can comprehensively monitor her land, no matter what its size, through one simple PC interface.

There are other water sensor systems on the market. But SOAK is more usable, has much wider applications and, at just €60, costs a fraction of the usual thousands of dollars. There’s another important addition. SOAK tells the landowner how many days of water he has left so he can be proactive about solving any drought-related problems. In a land where a farmer commits suicide every four days, this is a very big addition indeed.

As you’d expect of ideas that remain from an original torrent of 200,000 others, there are a fair few shortlisted gems. A medical chip, for example, adapted to monitor the health and needs of coral. Costing mere cents to produce, the Singaporean team has come up with a much-needed economically viable alternative to the multimillion-dollar monitoring systems currently in use.

Example two: Team Russia’s wildfire simulator. Utilising satellite pictures, Ignition provides firefighters with simulated firefighting options—including the ecological and financial cost of each one.

Of course, a few ridiculous ideas slip through too—if I may give a not-quite-MENSA-approved opinion. Like E-Cube, a virtual window. The home team’s entry seems to scrape through on something other than merit, giving many Kiwi bystanders horrific flashbacks of a certain Rugby World Cup. I can’t quite see the commercial possibilities in this one.

Because commercialisation is crucial. Just ask any Imagine Cup judge—or one of the thousands of companies that have employed an Imagine Cup finalist over the last six years. The president of Microsoft International, Jean-Phillipe Courtoise, refers to the cup as “the great corporate fast-track”. And history backs him: the 2006 Imagine Cup winner has fast-tracked himself straight past being an employee, to being an employer of 27 software developers in his own successful business.

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Around 200,000 students put their ideas forward for the Imagine Cup; 370 got to make their pitch in Paris

“All the finalists have a list of people waiting to give them jobs,” says Microsoft’s Wilson. “The Imagine Cup is the best possible testing ground for tough, real-world problems.”

These tough problems must fit even tougher criteria. In addition to utilising a small shop’s worth of Microsoft software, teams are also judged on whether their idea solves a real world problem in an innovative way, affecting a large number of people, or a small number “very deeply”. Each interface must be intuitive, ergonomic, user-friendly and open to evolution—and that’s just in the hero category, Software Design.

Embedded Development, Game Development, Photography, Short Film, Interface Design, three 24-hour challenges and the Specialised Algorithm sub-competitions also have large parts in the Imagine Cup. But timetable clashes bring tough choices—this conference was like being back at varsity, minus the Canty Draught.

The Software Development finalists weren’t a mixed bunch. There was the team from China that invented a household energy monitoring system. Among other things, the system will text you while you’re at the pub to let you know you’ve left the beer fridge open, and kindly offer to turn it off for you. Which was pretty much what fellow finalist Slovakia came up with too. Not to diminish the high-level thinking behind these inventions, but the judges really could have got together for a bit of a binge-and-whinge.

There were enough officials for their own party. Every fluorescent digital name was in Paris—from Yahoo’s senior director, Tom Chi, to the managing director of Microsoft Research, Andrew Herbert. For many, it was well worth the trip. A judge from Silicon Valley commented: “There are a number of projects here that are fully fundable.”

Turns out ‘fundable’ and ‘finalist’ are not mutually inclusive.

The team from Egypt, the country with more landmines than any other, brought along their invention: a fully robotic device capable of detecting and disabling mines. With 4.8 billion oil tanks, 13.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, countless historical treasures and a fair few people to protect, it’s no wonder Egypt already has the attention of several research and investment groups.

The Czech Republic’s Disaster Prevention System (DPS) also has a large following—both at home and around their exhibition booth. Team leader Petr Heinz sums up the project like this: “if it starts to rain heavily, say, you can put the weather details into the system and it will come up with a plan using the data and similar examples from history.” Already working with local government, Petr says they are happy to adapt the system to meet the disaster prevention needs of other countries. Go on, Helen—it’s got to be more reassuring than Peter Elliott popping up on telly to say, “Be ready”.

On the last day of the competition all the projects—from fundable to funny—were packed into a little out-of-the-way museum called the Louvre. Or, to be more precise, a little out-of-the-way part of the Louvre—the subterranean spot. With pasty faces everywhere, it seems no one wants to risk overexposure.

But I’m speaking from a clichéd perspective, which Voigt sets straight in the Women in IT forum. Fielding questions from female high school students from around Europe, she says: “The perception of people in IT is that it’s full of geeks and it’s not very social. I’ve found it’s the exact opposite.”

Voigt winds up her lecture with: “I feel like I’ve found my place in the world.” I’m just happy to discover that, with people like her acting as our next Noahs at the helm, there might actually be a world left that you feel you have a place in.

Wilson agrees wholeheartedly. His natural American enthusiasm got turned up another notch with every Imagine Cup till he arrived here in 2008: “Can these kids save the world? Of course! If not them, then who? This generation is more socially aware than any before them and these guys have the brains to back it up—it’s a great match! They’re thinking beyond the state of ‘now’. There was a time when electricity was a mind-blowing concept, now it’s a utility, we want to make these ideas utilities!”

I don’t know if it’s Joe’s ‘Let’s go innovation, let’s go!’ pep talk, the ideas themselves, or just those beautiful boulevards and sunsets over the Seine, but I notice I’m feeling uncharacteristically chipper as I pack to leave. The TV is on in the background and BBC World is playing a promo for an upcoming documentary, with pictures of the world’s first automobiles, boats and skyscrapers flashing across the screen. “Can we bring these great technologies back to the former glories of their day?” asks a plummy I-don’t-think-so voice.

“Oh, of course we can,” I mutter at the TV without thinking. Bloody journalists—all doom and gloom.

Won't save the world. Good for a laugh, though

Team Acid Rain

Most people flew to the Imagine Cup. A few came by train. The Irish team arrived in a car fitted with an optimised embedded conversion kit. Bloody show-offs.

There was a big audience for their exhibitionism—the subterranean auditorium at the Louvre was full during the finals, when Team Acid Rain played the short film of their journey.

They lost a tyre. They got lost. And they did it all on vege oil. “The system will pay for itself in 4,700 miles,” they tell us. “With no sulphur or carbon emissions.”

The judges ask curly French fries of questions. Yet none ask this: Where will we grow the potatoes to fry once all the fields are filled with oil-destined foods? Will we all be driving cheaply and cleanly to McDonald’s for a $50 hamburger with fries?

Smart containers

The team from Portugal could give the Irish some oil. They got to the finals by coming up with a way to collect the stuff. Smart Oil is a collection of smart containers, each of which alerts a recycle company when a container of used oil is 80 percent full. Not sure how much the Portuguese are into deep frying their paella, but in my house that alert would go off about once every three years. By then we’d all smell like eau de McDonald’s.

Tree talk

This semi-final player is not quite as value-less as the oil-related entries, but it’s twice as amusing. The Korean team developed sensors that allow people to ‘talk’ to trees, seeing what ails them. “We can detect the tree’s pain,” the students explain. Well then. That makes Christmas shopping for Prince Charles pretty painless doesn’t it, Wills and Harry?

Other entertaining moments
  • The Polish algorithm judge discussing the 24-hour competition: “The students had to find a good algorithm to find the time to go to the bathroom: after ten hours all six were still holding”
  • Pasty IT necks poking out of Quiksilver-sponsored t-shirts
  • Getting reiki (laying-on of hands) in the lunchroom from a software developer/programmer/natural healer
  • The team from Mexico, taking every opportunity to form a pyramid and whoop “Mehico! Mehico! Mehico!” Including the dry opening ceremony and a trip up the Eiffel Tower
  • Having an epiphany while the fourth person explains algorithms to me in a very slow voice: I’m not very smart
  • And the cherry of entertaining moments: the post-dinner cruise IT dance-off. Although impressed by the valiant and, in many cases, viable attempts to save us from being washed or dried out of existence, it was geek dancing that impressed me most. Sure, there were a few robots and step-one-step-twos on the periphery, but the general standard was much higher than at your average Auckland nightclub.

And somewhere out there is footage of a skinny Japanese bandanna-ed university student limboing ever lower. He was good. I don’t often concede defeat in a dance-off, but someone should have awarded this kid his own Imagine Cup. Or at least formed a pyramid: “Tokyo! Tokyo! Tokyo!”