Microsoft, National Society of Black Engineers and Howard University Team for Fourth Annual “Skins Challenge”

REDMOND, Wash., May 10, 2005 — When Israel Cook entered the first Howard University Windows Media Player Skins Challenge in 2002, he had no idea how it would change his life. The user-interface “skin” he entered, “Past & Beyond,” went on to take first place in the competition. At the time, Cook was majoring in computer science at Howard University in Washington D.C., one of the most prominent of America’s historically black universities and colleges. His work garnered the attention of some folks in Hollywood, who subsequently hired Cook to create Windows Media Player skins for the movies “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” as well as the popular WB television-network drama “Smallville.” Those credentials in turn recommended Cook to his current position as a webmaster at, an affiliate of Black Entertainment Television, Inc.

“NuCube,” created by a trio of Howard University students, is the Windows Media Player skin winner of the 2005 competition.

“The connections that got me to where I am right now all started from that first skin I did,” says Cook. “It’s amazing how far that one skin took me. I worked hard on it for two months straight, until 10 o’clock every night, and it was worth it.”

Howard University, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Microsoft partnered this year to launch the fourth annual Windows Media Player Skins Challenge to create original user interfaces for the popular player. This year, the Skins Challenge was for the first time open to registered students attending any university or college with a NSBE chapter.

“The Skins Challenge is a tremendous opportunity for enterprising students to demonstrate their creativity in developing culturally enlightened state-of-the-software digital media products for a worldwide audience,” says Todd Shurn, Ph.D., associate professor of Systems and Computer Science at Howard University and executive producer of the 2005 Skins Challenge.

The competition provides students with the opportunity to create innovative technology that speaks to their culture and personal tastes, while enhancing their skills in graphic arts, theme development and image design. Windows Media skins are graphical user interfaces that combine graphic art and technology to customize the appearance and features of the Microsoft Windows Media Player, including volume and play controls, play lists, animations, equalizers, progress bars, sound effects, and visualizations. Teams of engineering students and graphic artists can creatively express themselves with colors, themes, and images, while demonstrating their programming skills to produce exciting functionality and new interactivity modes. Skins offer users a personal interface for interacting with digital media such as CDs, DVDs, MP3s, and streaming audio and video.

Judges from academia, industry and the media selected winners based on their representation of a theme from culture, entertainment or education in a manner consistently reinforced by appearance, audio effects and operation. Emphasis was placed on the skin’s utility as a media player interface and its innovation using features available in Windows Media Player 10.

“Talking Drum” Skin Takes Top Honors

This year’s winner, “NuCube,” was created by Howard University students Chinweizu Owunwanne, Paul Onakoya and Munyiri Kamau. The concept for their skin was based on a West African drum called the Dondo (“talking drum”), with a 3-dimensional cube as the main display unit. The cube rotates, providing basic skin functionality such as settings, playlist and music/video, along with cultural information and a special functionality to play the drum. The skin also incorporates Web services, such as weather reports and driving directions.

Owunwanne describes the competition as a “big deal” at the university, where it receives a lot of attention and respect. After last year’s challenge was won by a team from North Carolina A&T State University, there was an added impetus for students at the university to win the competition this year.

“One of the greatest things about computer science is that you can start writing code whenever you want to,” says Owunwanne. “That’s different from other careers. At age 14, if you want to be a mechanical engineer or a doctor, there’s not much you can do about it. You can talk to the people who do those things, but you, yourself cannot do those things. But at 14, you can start writing code. It might not be anything complex, but you’re doing it, and you can focus on anything that captures your interest.”

Younger Entrants Taste Success, Too

While most participants typically have a computer science background, it is not necessarily a prerequisite to enter the challenge — nor is it a guarantee of success. In fact, one of this year’s finalists was a team of three that included University of Memphis students Marlon Ridley, a graduate student of electrical engineering, and Andre Mitchell, a business major, as well as 17-year-old Keith Hammond, who attends Melrose High School in Memphis, Tenn. The three created a skin using the NSBE logo, manipulating it with a number of special effects. “The challenge was something we were all very interested in doing,” says Ridley. “Our skills complemented one another’s, and we worked together really well.”

Malcolm Player, a member of last year’s first-place team, is so passionate about demystifying technology to those without a computer science background that this summer he is teaching a workshop on making skins for kids in grades K-12. When he began working on “Aggie City,” last year’s winning entry, he had never before made one, but began by going to the MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) site and researching how to create basic skins. Player, who attends the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for his master’s degree in computer science, plans to tell the kids he works with, “You don’t need a background in computers to create something new and different, but never be afraid to fail.”

The opportunity for such workshops is sponsored through NSBE. In general, activities that fuse black history with contemporary technology are limited in supply. “It is incredibly important to commemorate our culture in traditional ways, but it is also necessary to enhance and build on it using innovative ways that progress with technology,” says Keith Toussaint, a program manager in the Windows Digital Media Division at Microsoft and a Howard alumnus. “The Skins Challenge is a great example of how academia, industry and alumni can work in partnership to provide relevant educational experiences.”

“Always go beyond convention and work hard for your passions,” says Cook. “It’s not easy, but when you tap into your creativity and go beyond what others are doing, people will notice.”

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