This year’s Imagine Cup SA finals were held at the CSIR Conference Centre in Pretoria, where 11 teams went up against each other for the opportunity to compete on the international stage against student teams from other countries in the international finals being held in Seattle, Washington later this year.
Our own Deon du Plessis was invited to help judge the contest, alongside representatives from government, the CSIR, the International Labour Organisation, Microsoft and the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa.
The Imagine Cup, in case you’ve not yet heard of it, is a worldwide competition hosted by Microsoft that challenges university teams to advance their technical skills by building some sort of tech-related project, ranging from apps to clever websites to games. Winning earns them a cash prize, and the opportunity to showcase their projects and talents on the international stage.
Teams are judged based on their technical execution, how their projects can potentially affect the real world and how marketable their ideas are.
While projects can be on anything at all, the Imagine Cup encourages students to focus on coming up with tech-based solutions to real-world problems, and the more complex the challenges they take on and the more effective the projects are at addressing them, the better the teams do.
Games are also welcome, and this year’s Cup saw two submissions: SAM, a 3D platformer built by WhatIf Studios, and Pya, a maze-running puzzle game made by Digital Interactive Games, both studios comprising several varsity-going students.
The other two categories are Innovation and World Citizenship; Innovation is easy enough to understand – projects must do something new and interesting, or be better than the vast majority of other projects of a similar nature – while World Citizenship is a little tougher to define. To do well in that category, a project must be beneficial to other humans on the planet, make the world a better place to live in, or offer a combination of the two.
One team managed to nail the concept of innovation that the Cup was after: team Dynamic Overload from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) put together an excellent project they called Hexafit, a website and app that combines gym workout tracking, health tips, exercise directions, social media and inter-friend competition in a single platform.
[Update: Apologies to the team, I initially wrote they were from the University of Pretoria; the story has been changed to reflect that they are actually UJ students.]
While the ideas behind Hexafit aren’t entirely original – many big-name companies not only have their own exercise apps but also fitness bands that detect and measure physical activity – the incorporation of so many different ideas into a single platform was exactly the kind of innovation the judges were looking for.
In the Games category, team DIG (Digital Interactive Games) walked away with top honours for their puzzle game, Pya, that mixes role-playing elements with the puzzling involved in solving obstacle-filled mazes.
With gorgeous, hand-crafted visuals, mazes filled with fun challenges and rock-solid plans for monetisation (Kickstarter, Steam Greenlight), Pya charmed the judges right from the get-go.
And finally in the World Citizenship category, Team Random Dude – University of the Western Cape student Kurt Jacobs – walked away with the top prize for his prototype device that aims to help sight-impaired and blind people become aware of obstacles in their surroundings.
He connected a Kinect sensor, an Arduino board and image-processing software on a computer together with a headband kitted out with small motors. When the Kinect picks up a nearby object, it causes the motors in the headband to vibrate. Since these motors are spread out across the headband and vibrate according to the object’s location and proximity, they are able to tell the wearer exactly where the obstacle is, allowing it to be avoided.
Even at this prototype stage, the “visually-impaired helper” system costs far less than competing systems, coming in at less than three thousand rand. It stands to benefit 90 million people around the world who are visually-impaired and 190m people who are totally blind, 90% of which, Jacobs says, are located in the third world.
Awards were handed out at a dinner ceremony held at the CSIR’s Conference Centre. Well done, all!