By Aimee Riordan | July 28, 2014
In 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake jolted Wenchuan in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, leaving more than 80,000 people dead or missing. Ge Zhuochen was in high school then. He remembers feeling moved by how brave people were at such a terrible time — and wishing he could do more.
Today, a student at Xidian University, Zhuochen is studying computer science with the hope of finding a way to solve big problems. Together with Imagine Cup team members Lin Chengfan, Liu Renjun and Niu Muqing, he built an emergency communications platform hosted on Microsoft Azure that shares vital information and helps governments and other organizations deploy aid in the event of a disaster.
Zhuochen and team will compete in the Microsoft 2014 Imagine Cup finals, a part of the Microsoft YouthSpark initiative, this week. For the 34 teams descending on Seattle from all over the world, code is not just the way they created their projects, it’s a common and essential language they all speak — and represents the power to promote change.
“With coding we can change our lives. We can change the world by using our keyboard to import,” Zhuochen says via Skype. “It is amazing. It is the most universal language. Not just like writing a book, but doing active things that can change the world.”
The university students arriving in Seattle this week are “talking with” Microsoft code, building Windows and Windows Phone apps and hosting their projects on Azure.
“This year’s Imagine Cup includes a large number of Windows Phone projects,” says Steve Guggenheimer, corporate vice president, Developer Experience and Evangelism and Microsoft’s chief evangelist. “Our students are smartphone natives at this point, and when they start thinking about bold new ideas, most of them expect to do it through their phones.”
The projects are divided into three groups: Games, World Citizenship and Innovation. This is the first time the Imagine Cup finals have been hosted in Seattle.
The 2014 game entries include everything from an exercise journey taking kids ages 4-7 into “Fitverse” to get active with “Fitpals”, to a world featuring a live electrical spark named Turnon, and a “riot simulator” where players help dozens of extremely cute demonstrators overtake an authoritarian government.
The World Citizenship category includes Zhuochen and team’s PersePhone project as well as entries that assist with medical diagnosis and accessibility challenges.
“We’ve got four very different solutions to ensuring more people can use technology in their daily lives,” Guggenheimer adds. Accessibility is an issue “very important to Microsoft, and our students have done great work in this area.”
The Amplifiers, who hail from Pakistan, have created an app that turns a Windows Phone 8 device into a hearing aid, and a tool to test hearing in infants. The team’s project also includes a member community portal, hosted on Azure, where the hearing impaired can meet virtually to support each other.
The Amplifiers’ Sherjeel Sikander demonstrates his team’s app, which includes an auditory aid and an infant hearing test.
“Smartphones have become a necessity in our daily lives. So we wanted to utilize the same platform, where patients can utilize their phone as a hearing aid device at no extra hardware cost,” says Amplifiers team member Sherjeel Sikander.
He says code isn’t merely a shared language, it’s a “revolution.”
“It’s given a lot of the developing countries a voice in the current technological boom. Even here where the job market is saturated and struggling, the language of code seems to be opening new doors.”
Also in the World Citizenship category is AfriGal Tech, composed of four women from Uganda, the first of its kind from sub Saharan Africa competing at this level, says team member Rachel Aitrau. Their project, mDex, uses Microsoft technology to make diagnosing sickle cell disease mobile and more affordable.
In Africa, 200,000 babies are born each year with sickle cell, and 60 percent of them die before the age of five. “This is the result of lack of awareness about the disease, low access to early diagnosis and limited expertise,” Aitrau says.
Arono Rebecc, left, and Nasike Beatrice, right, make the finishing touches to mDex, an app that diagnoses sickle cell disease.
Their invention uses a Windows Phone with an external compound lens to capture an image of a blood sample. Then, mDex analyzes the image of the sample and returns the results in seconds. The app also stores patient information and connects with Outlook to email results.
This is the second year for the Innovation category and the 2014 finalists include another all-woman team, this one from Bahrain, which is bringing to Seattle a custom nail polish mixer.
The project includes a Windows app that enables you to choose a color (in glossy, matte or glitter finish), and accompanying hardware that mixes the pigments and delivers just enough polish for a single application.
Another finalist team in Innovation created the Food&Gram app, which delivers the nutritional and calorie-content information of your meal, as well as suggestions for how to burn those calories off, all by simply taking a picture with your Windows Phone.
John Scott Tynes, Microsoft’s senior Imagine Cup program lead, says the Innovation category was launched in 2013 to provide a forum for projects that were neither games nor “tech for good.”
“Historically, projects have been very focused on tech-for-good issues. We realized that was too narrow a focus and saw more generally that more consumer-oriented projects were having a big impact,” Tynes says. “We’re happy to see the Innovation competition mature and to encourage that kind of free thinking.”
He also reports that more teams are building on the Microsoft Cloud with Azure.
“This speaks to the maturity of the platform and the realization that teams can use [Azure] to create across Web apps and as a great back-end service across all kinds of work,” Tynes says.
China’s Zhuochen agrees. “Azure is very reliable,” he says, adding that his team had different options on which to build PersePhone, but that Azure was superior when it came to “stability, network speed, capacity and flexibility.”
While code is a language all of the Imagine Cup finalists share, Tynes says it’s also a shared passion for technology that brings them together. “Whether the student is from Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka or San Francisco, you know what it means to have a project crash and spend hours pulling your hair out finding a solution.”
Zhuochen’s team, for example, has redesigned the user experience for PersePhone 20 times and rewritten the corresponding code 10 times.
The creators of PersePhone, top to bottom, Liu Renjun, Lin Chengfan, Ge Zhuochen, Niu Muqing.
Rahul Sood, general manager for Microsoft Ventures, which helps grow young companies, says code is key, but it’s just one piece.
“Creative thinking is equally important,” he says. “When we select startups for one of our accelerators, we look for balanced teams. If there are no creative elements on the team, they end up on the bottom of the pile.
Sood adds that one of the 2014 Imagine Cup winners may also end up in a Microsoft Ventures accelerator. “I’m looking to discover one or two great potential entrepreneurs, so we can help them build a successful business.”
Teams begin competition Wednesday. The winners will be announced Friday morning, after which the top three teams from each category will face Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Code.org Founder Hadi Partovi and Reddit.com General Manager Erik Martin for a final round of questions, live.
Grand prize is a private audience with Microsoft Founder and Technology Advisor Bill Gates.
“Imagine Cup is a technology competition, but at its heart, and as part of the Microsoft YouthSpark initiative, it’s really about empowering young people with best-in-class technology so they can realize their dreams,” says Guggenheimer. “Microsoft is here to supply the services and devices, and then sit back and watch while these students from all over the globe show us their visions of tomorrow.”