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Imagine Cup 2007

Embedded Challenge Heats Up

Last year, we looked at the amazing embedded design achievements of student teams in Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Student Challenge.  On impossibly short schedules, and with almost no existing infrastructure and with no previous experience in most of the development tools, these student teams put together complete working systems with custom hardware and software components, as well as marketing and product plans to assess the viability of their projects as products. 

The dedication, creativity, and energy required to pull off such a feat are well beyond the capacity of most commercial product development teams.  The world of benefits packages, balancing work and family life, vacation time, office politics, and industrial regulations and standards preclude the kind of fast-paced, get-the-job-done-at-all-costs, wind-in-your-face effort that these student teams (and some startup companies) are capable of generating.

This year, the scale of the competition has gone up significantly.  Microsoft has chosen to move the venue of the embedded design competition into the “Imagine Cup” – a broad-based, worldwide student competition that spans technology, skills, and creativity in challenges ranging from embedded systems design to algorithm development to digital arts.  This year, the theme of the overall competition is “Education,” where students are challenged to apply their technology-related expertise, skills, and creativity to enable “a better education for all.”

On the embedded competition, over 450 teams worldwide answered the challenge.  From the beginning of Competition on November 15, 2006, teams had just three months to get back with project proposals.  With that amount of competition, judging was fierce, and the first big cut – from 450 teams back to 200 — left some excellent proposals below the line.  “It’s amazing year after year to take a look at the way students come together with this competition to build something cool and interesting,” says Mike Hall, Senior Technical Product Manager in the Mobile and Embedded Devices Group at Microsoft.  “We get to see not only how students deal with finding solutions for real-world problems, but also with taking that project to productization.  In the past, we’ve had student projects actually commercialized.”

Once the competition was down to 200 teams, it was time to roll up the sleeves, pull out the slide rules – OK, wait, I dropped back a few decades on the education system – set up the project team website, and get down to real work.  Each of the selected top 200 teams was provided a single-board computer, a Phidgets LCD and interface, a full version of Windows Embedded CE 6.0, Visual Studio 2005, and cables.  All these tools allowed them to move their idea from proposal into working prototype.

The single-board computer is an ICOP eBox 2300 – a small-form-factor, low-cost, low-power platform with a 200Mhz Vortex86 SoC processor, 128MB SDRAM, an IDE interface for hard disk, bootable IDE and other storage, VGA output with support for resolutions up to 1280X1024, Compact Flash slot, 2 RS-232 ports, 3 USB ports (1.1), Ethernet, PS2 keyboard and mouse connections, AC97 audio inputs and outputs, and a simple, 5V supply requirement.  This platform offered student teams a robust set of options for I/O and custom peripheral connection with enough computing power to handle most applications except those requiring things like digital signal processing or high-speed/high-resolution video.

On the software side, teams were required to build, debug, and deploy a Windows Embedded CE 6.0 operating system image.  With the OS in place, any custom hardware developed for the project would also require custom drivers to be integrated, and then the final application could be deployed on that base.  The Platform Builder IDE for Windows CE allows the operating system image to be configured specifically for the requirements of each project.  Teams (and you too for that matter) can maintain a lean image with exactly the features required for a particular application.  

With development tools in hand, the 200 “Second Round” teams had just two months to get their ideas working in real hardware and their presentations ready for the judges.  This time, the cut was much deeper – only 15 of the top 200 teams would be selected for the finals next week – August 5-11 in Seoul, South Korea.  The 15 chosen teams will have to demonstrate working systems and make final presentations to the judging panel. 

“Our greatest motivation was the fact that one-fifth of the world’s population is illiterate,” says Andre Furtado of Trivent Dreams – a finalist team from Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, “That makes about 800 million people who cannot do basic reading, writing, and calculation.  In some countries, the illiteracy rate approaches 90%.”  Trivent Dreams set about creating a low-cost, easy to deploy learning platform that could be used both in the school and at home to educate and motivate young students.

 Their project, “E-du Box” uses the ICOP box connected to an ordinary TV, a pen input device, and a custom piece of hardware the team calls their “External Agent” – an avatar constructed of a hand-puppet made into a robotic animatronics figure that aids in communicating with and motivating the student.  The External Agent is certainly the centerpiece of the team’s well-conceived application – controlled wirelessly via Bluetooth, it agrees, disagrees, says yes or no, and has a repertoire of other simple movements that can reinforce the lesson being presented.

As interesting as the system itself is the deployment framework – a drag-and-drop software application that allows educators to quickly create custom lessons, even customizing the interactions for specific interests of individual students.  “If a student is interested in, say, animals and soccer,” Furtado explains, “the teacher can customize the games and characters in the lessons to give feedback based on those themes.”

Once the E-du Box returns to school, teachers can upload progress, scores, and other data about the student’s progress on the lessons from the device, install new curriculum, and send the box back out into the field.  “Many students have to learn at home, and the E-du Box helps with that.  The cost is very low, and it takes advantage of the family TV – over 90% of homes in Brazil have TV.  This also decreases the solution cost.”

Team “Learn Smart” from University of Sao Paulo State is comprised of four undergraduate students working on Information Systems degrees.  Their project, “Pangea,” provides a platform for language study applying the principal called the eTandem approach where students are paired with each other based on complementary language skills.  “A student in Brazil learning English might be paired with a student in the United States who is studying Portugese,” explains Tiago Porangaba of Team Learn Smart.  “They can communicate by text or audio and practice their language skills with each other.  Afterward, a tutor can review the session and provide critique.”

The Pangea system uses no custom hardware and is designed to be deployed in public places such as schools and libraries.  The software searches for compatible students and matches them up, and then it facilitates the eTandem learning process via internet connections.  Already, local institutions are expressing interest in deploying Pangea in their environments – a testament to the relevance and utility of the students’ solution.

The other 13 finalists field similarly compelling entries – which should make for an engaging presentation next week when the final winners are determined.  Those of us developing embedded products for a living can learn a lot from the energy, creativity, resourcefulness, and focus of these students.

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