Imagine Cup Finals audienceI've just returned from the first Microsoft Ireland finals of the Imagine Cup, an annual international student competition hosted by Microsoft. 

The theme of the Imagine Cup competition this year is "Imagine a world where technology enables a better education for all."

Although the competition has been running since 2003, this is the first year that Microsoft Ireland has hosted the competition for students in Ireland and Northern Ireland.  I was one of six people on the judging panel today and have to say I had an amazing time.

Why?  I was very impressed by the quality of the entries from the ten finalists.  Earlier this year, when we selected the finalists, I was struck by how ambitious their projects were.  I had my concerns about their ability to execute on the proposed projects in the time available, but they did.

Here are the three winners of today's finals:

Imagine Cup Ireland - winning team from NUI MaynoothFirst place: From NUI Maynooth - Team InGest - A low-cost interactive system for teaching sign language, using standard web cameras as input, to provide feedback on a participant's signing gestures.  The team offered a good, realistic problem definition, gave a great demo, and showed how they'd constrained the problem space sufficiently to a challenging pattern recognition problem which, when solved, would allow them to develop an application that would significantly increase the number of people who can communicate using Sign Language.  (Dan Kelly, Cathal Coffey, Eric McClean; Mentor: Tom Lysaght.)

Second place: From University of Ulster Coleraine - Team UUC - A system for using gaming concepts on the PC and XBox360 to teach Linguistic Phonics, an approach which provides an understanding of how oral language is recorded in print.  Again, the team demonstrated the relevance of their application to this year's competition, and in UUC's case also showed the results from user studies performed in collaboration with local schools. They offered great ideas for future development, including a content authoring environment, and ultimately provided an engaging way to teach and reinforce phonics concepts.

Third place: From NUI Maynooth (again!) - Team Sleepy Oranges - A training environment to provide students in the western world with feedback on the subtle but critically important aspects of learning tonal languages such as Chinese.  They began by demonstrating that giving feedback to the student is essential for learning tonal languages.  Using pitch tracking and dynamic time warping to analyse voice input, and handwriting analysis to analyse written input, they then showed how their solution provides the required feedback in a novel and effective manner.  (Fergal Walsh, Cathal Browne, Shekman Tang, Lei Pan; Mentor: Joseph Timoney.)

If you'd like to see the other entries, here's an image of Karlin Lillington's Irish Times article on the Imagine Cup, which appeared last Friday (20th of April; click to enlarge):

Friday's Irish Times Article on the Imagine Cup

As a judge, I can admit now that the judging panel had the happy quandary of having to choose three finalists from among more than three that could easily have made that cut.  I'll write more later to give some insight into some of the projects that didn't make the top three - as there were some other great ideas and implementations in there.

Finally, I want to tip my cap to Liam Cronin, who led the organization of this year's Imagine Cup Ireland competition.  Organisationally, and in terms of the results from the ten teams, the event exceeded every expectation I had.