Sustainable ComputingImagine Cup 2008: Competing for Change

Mitch Irsfeld

Finalists in the 2008 U.S. Imagine Cup met in Los Angeles on April 20 through April 22 to present their solutions for changing the world by enabling a sustainable environment. Their passion and creativity was tempered only by the discipline of envisioning real-world business models. The result: a fresh blend of established technology and unconventional thinking that attacked the world's environmental problems on several fronts.

Measuring Change

The winner of the Software Design competition, Team Sparx (see Figure 1) from the Rochester Institute of Technology, showed how technology can help consumers and businesses save energy and money today. The team's Reactivity solution programs and configures a network of sensors that can be used both in homes and businesses to take readings of environmental variables, such as AC current, temperature, humidity, light, sound, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and motion. It then stores the data with Microsoft® SQL Server® for further study and analysis.

Figure 1 Team Sparx members (from left to right) Joe Zhou, Adam Risi, and Zachery Shivers

Figure 1** Team Sparx members (from left to right) Joe Zhou, Adam Risi, and Zachery Shivers **

What makes their solution unique, according to team member Adam Risi, is that "we broke out the sensors so that they are independent from what they are controlling." This allows users to capture individual sensor readings by connecting to the appropriate network node. "We also enable rules that help define every use," says Risi.

As winners, Team Sparx will receive $12,000 and a trip to Paris, France to compete in the Imagine Cup 2008 Worldwide Software Design Invitational Final in July 2008.

The Business Angle

To make any green initiative successful, according to Mark Aggar, Environmental Technologist in the Microsoft Environmental Sustainability group and a judge in this year's U.S. finals, you have to combine creativity with business thinking. "If you don't think about how to make money," notes Aggar, "how is the solution going to be sustainable?"

It's no surprise then that several of the teams competing in this year's competition, including Team Carbon Cart (see Figure 2) from Seattle Pacific University, have plans to bring their solutions to market. Team Carbon Cart took second place in the Software Design competition for, an e-commerce site with an eco-conscience. The site is due to go live as a commercial enterprise in June 2008.

Team Carbon Cart members (from left to right) Ryan Tilton, Laura Hanes, Reed Probus, and Kevin McFarland

Figure 2 Team Carbon Cart members (from left to right) Ryan Tilton, Laura Hanes, Reed Probus, and Kevin McFarland

The team has secured a drop-ship partnership with and has also partnered with Carbon Fund to allow shoppers to offset the carbon footprint of their orders, including the carbon emissions caused by shipping the merchandise. A small percentage of each purchase goes toward buying carbon credits, explains team member Laura Hanes. Customers can then have their carbon credits support projects in the areas of renewable energy, reforestation, and energy efficiency.

Arts and Education

The third place winner for Software Design was IcedTeamLemon (see Figure 3), a distributed team consisting of members from Carnegie Mellon University, the College of William & Mary, and UCLA. They developed software for a drawing tablet that could reduce paper consumption in K-12 education. The interactive tool, called LemonSketch, gives students and teachers a whiteboard view for interacting with or collaborating on live documents. Further, it allows teachers to comment directly in real time. Team member Raphael Mun said he could even envision serving digitized text books and handouts to further reduce the need for paper.

IcedTeamLemon members (from left to right) Geoffrey Schutta, Raphael Mun, Jason Meistrich, and Sophie Xie

Figure 3** IcedTeamLemon members (from left to right) Geoffrey Schutta, Raphael Mun, Jason Meistrich, and Sophie Xie  **

Other entries in the competition included carbon footprint calculators and an online solution that integrates with Facebook to match commuters for ridesharing relationships.

A new category in this year's competition, the Xbox 360® Games for Change Challenge, called for entrants to use Microsoft XNA® Game Studio Express to create a game that addresses the environmental sustainability theme in an entertaining fashion. The first place winner, Team Ligersoft from George Washington University, designed an arcade-style game called Ecocism. In the game, players manage their resources strategically and restore the environment while fighting eco-unfriendly combatants.

The Imagine Cup competition also included a Digital Arts category. Two sisters from Wayne State University, Jennifer and Melissa Hui, made up Team Provisio. They secured the first-place prize with a photo essay on the cradle of the planet's ecosystem—the tropical rainforests.

Making a Difference

As part of the festivities, Microsoft presented a software-plus-cash donation of $1.5 million to the Magic Johnson Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by former NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr. The foundation develops programs and supports community-based organizations that address the educational, health, and social needs of ethnically diverse, urban communities.

"The Magic Johnson Foundation has 21 'Empowerment Centers' around the country," said Chris Weber, Microsoft U.S. Western Region Vice President, "and we are very interested in understanding how this partnership might enable a sort of mini Imagine Cup within these Empowerment Centers."

Cookie Johnson, wife of Magic Johnson, accepted the award, saying the partnership with Microsoft will not only help to bridge the digital divide in inner city communities but also inspire kids to pursue careers in science, math, and technology. "Innovation is a key component of any economy and with passion and imagination, there is no limit to what can be accomplished," she said.

"Everyone can learn from these students," said Weber. "They have that youthful innocence and energy and passion, and they think they can conquer the world. I want to get some of that. It's very contagious. And when you think about it, Microsoft was started by a teenager that had that passion and vision at a very young age."

Moving Forward

There is also a practical side to sponsoring the Imagine Cup. The number of U.S. students studying computer science is decreasing dramatically year-over-year, so much so that U.S. technology companies could face a skills crisis by 2012, according to Scott Davidson, Senior Director of the U.S. Business and Marketing Organization at Microsoft. "This is a potentially significant loss of opportunity because it will be today's students that build the next generation of technology and focus on the significant challenges that face our global society. They are less confined by conventional thinking and the next breakthrough will come from them."

If numbers are any indication, the Imagine Cup has already had an impact. This year's competition drew more than 16,000 entries, up from 4,000 last year, according to Weber. And this is critical. As we look for more sustainable solutions, and we look for renewable forms of energy, we can't let tomorrow's crop of technology experts become a limited resource.

Mitch Irsfeld is the Managing Editor of the U.S. MSDN Flash and TechNet Flash newsletters. He is based in Redmond, WA.

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