The winners of Microsoft Australia's Imagine Cup came up with the most extraordinary entry: a system that enables blind people to program in C#!
|The winning team from the University of Canberra
It's not every day that a student programming competition delivers a solution with the power to change some people's lives. The winners of Microsoft Australia’s Imagine Cup have come up with a system that makes it possible for blind people to program in C#.
The team, from the University of Canberra, presented their entry to a panel of judges at Microsoft’s Remix conference in Melbourne, Australia, yesterday. The judges, which included two Microsoft evangelists, a senior software engineer, a Melbourne politician and APC’s editor - were pleasantly surprised by the ambitious nature of the winning student project.
A judge, Andrew Coates, Microsoft Australia Developer Evangelist, said the entry was innovative and had the potential to change the lives of its users. Another judge, senior software engineer and Microsoft MVP, Shahed Khan, said the winning team had addressed a complex problem no-one had solved before.
Four students from Team APA (Audio Programming Assistant), showed the judging panel a solution in which they had customised Visual Studio to let blind users compile and run C# programs. They fired up Studio, covered their laptop’s screen, and demonstrated it was possible to code sight unseen with the help of functions that located and read out lines of code and used the Intellisense autocompletion feature. In short, they had pulled together the basic elements that allowed a blind programmer to design, write and debug a program.
Along with their customised version of Studio, they presented a customised IE browser that reads out the links on a web page and lets users fill in fields and dialog boxes. These two tools were also accompanied by a test website with programming lessons and help forums for blind programmers.
Coates was impressed by the APA system’s ability to emulate the productivity of Visual Studio in an audio environment, incorporating Intellisense. “It impressed me a lot and it shows the extensibility of their SDK (software development kit),” Coates said.
Team APA’s mentor, Dr Dat Tran, said the team entered the competition with a philosophy of creating something that would help others: “Our background is that we’re all IT people, but we wanted to do something useful, not just something that about entertainment.”
The judging panel selected Team APA after some robust internal discussion. The two other finalist entries were also good. A debate centred on whether Team APA’s target market, blind people who wanted to program in C#, was too limited and whether the blind programming solution was advanced enough in its development. By contrast, the other two finalists addressed wider markets and were close to full commercial deployment.
The team that placed second, “Smart Education,” also from the University of Canberra and also mentored by Dr Dat Tran, created a nifty centralised web service that provides lecture notes transcription, translation and collaboration for university and college students. It accepts a student’s photograph of a lecture whiteboard taken with a mobile phone, translates it into text or audio, and sends it to a mobile device. The Smart Education student team showed a full working service and the judges were impressed by the slickness of its components. Its market was definitely a large one: any university or college student who hates taking down notes from lecture whiteboards or presentations. This probably means every student in the universe.
The Smart Education service also enables students to share the notes with other students, translates them into foreign languages, and throws in a study scheduler service.
The third placed entry, “Question Answer Technology”, from Queensland University of Technology created a system that attaches a lecturers’ voice comments to individual Powerpoint slides during a lecture. It lets students log in remotely and download the relevant slides combined with the lecturer’s voice, to their mobile devices or PCs. The solution also lets students upload questions to the lecturer and receive the lecturer’s responses.
While the judging panel felt the second and third entries were impressive, we agreed with the assessment of one judge, Charles Sterling, a Microsoft Developer Evangelist, that they were essentially an amalgam of technologies and solutions that were already in existence and would inevitably face formidable competition when taken to market.
By contrast, there was nothing like Team APA’s blind programming solution. Judge Tony Lupton, the State member for Prahran in Victoria, felt Team APA’s entry would make a massive difference to the lives of some individuals.
To test their final decision, the judges also considered some other criteria, such as which team’s solution would most likely attract investment capital or a buyout offer. Again, they felt Team APA’s solution was the best candidate for this.
In the end, Team APA won because they were addressing a problem no-one had successfully addressed before. They also clearly benefited from Dr Tran’s mentoring, who not only guided the second-placed team, but also the first and second–placed teams in last year’s Imagine Cup competition.
FULL DETAILS - IMAGINE CUP FINALISTS
1st Place: Team APA (University of Canberra). Lets blind people program. The APA system has three main subsystems: APA Studio.NET is the programming tool that allows blind users to program in C#; APA Web Browser is a customised browser that reads out all the links on web pages; and the APA website uses web services to create a learning centre for blind people. (Team members: Phillip Haines, Ngoc Thuy Duong Khuu, Van Tieu Vinh and Ping Li. Mentor is Dr Dat Tran).
First Prize is a share in $2,000 cash and a trip to the Imagine Cup world finals in Korea in mid August.
2nd Place: Smart Education (University of Canberra). Lets students share their notes from lectures, translates handwritten lecture whiteboard notes into text, translates text into audio files and translates notes into different languages - all via a centralised web service. (Team members – Shafquat Zaman Khan, Jagdish Mehra, Muhammad Meherban Arif - mentor is Dr Dat Tran).
Prize is a share in $1,000 and an Xbox 360 for each team member.
3rd place: Question Answer Technology (Queensland UNiverity of Technology) – A Powerpoint plugin records metadata so that audio from a lecture presentation can be supplied with the appropriate slides to students who are accessing the presentation remotely. Students can then upload questions and comments in the form of audio files for each slide (Team members – Andrew Tan, David Lei, Chien Soon Jon - mentor is Dr On Wong).
Prize is copy of Vista Ultimate and Office 2007 for each team member and a share in $500 cash prize.