Every year Microsoft sponsors the Imagine Cup and throws a challenge to students around the world. The competition is intense, and each participating country will send one team to represent it in the finals - this year in France.
This year's theme is "The Environment" and Microsoft is calling on young programmers, artists and technologists around the world to "imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment."
The challenge is for students to bring their ideas to life in a competition that comprises nine categories, each catering to a different technological or artistic affinity. Students’ work will reflect valuable, real world solutions, while giving them the opportunity to compete for cash prizes.
We had a quick chat with Team Waikato Rev A, one of the four teams participating in the New Zealand finals and aiming at representing New Zealand in the world finals. Keep an eye open for other articles in this series.
Hi Jed, nice to meet your Team. Can you introduce Team Waikato Rev A?
I'm Jed, team captain and web service / mobile developer, and a second year student. Next up is Paul our hardware engineer (third year), Sam the main application developer (second year), and Beverley the graphic designer (fourth year). We're all BCMS students here at the University of Waikato. Bill Rogers is our academic mentor, and Hayley Smith is our industry mentor (a developer at Gallagher).
Congrats on entering Imagine Cup 2008 New Zealand Finals. How did you find Round 1?
It was challenging; it was especially disappointing that our device worked in the hotel room at 2am (we drove up the day before), but the moment we got to Microsoft it wouldn't work at all. We found the issue and fixed it, so for the finals it won't happen again. I'm just glad the judges saw potential and gave us a second chance to get it right.
Is this your first year with Imagine Cup?
No, myself and Beverley were in Team Ackermen last year, we won the NZ SDI with our project Gary's Lab and competed in Seoul (with Bill and Hayley as our mentors). Unfortunately we didn't place in the international ranks, but according to the judges who came up to console us afterwards we only just missed out. 13/14th of 55 teams isn't bad for the first NZ team!
The other two Team Ackermen members, Jonathan and Dacre, are still working on our project, and its looking really good. They're currently on an exchange in Austria, and would be keen to come see us in Paris if we get through.
What motivated your team to participate in Imagine Cup competition?
We actually started thinking about this year's competition back in Seoul, but the main problem was finding an idea that could impact people in a serious and deep way, but was realisable in a small scale environment. Ideas like multimedia-rich virtual meeting spaces were tossed around early on, but it wasn't until we started talking to our environmental department until we realised what we could do, and it kinda went from there.
What is your Imagine Cup 2008 project about?
The biggest cause of carbon emissions is power generation, and a lot of this is from peak power stations. Peak power stations only run at certain times of the day, often use non-renuable energy sources and are very inefficient because of the way they have to operate. So, we can reduce carbon emissions by reducing peak power. But how do we get consumers to turn off appliances, when they don't know what they're doing to the environment?
This is where Gary's Footprint comes in. Peak power costs more to produce. If instead of having one constant price, the price varied during times of the day, consumers are more likely to switch off during expensive times. This has been shown in commercial trails around the world, but there hasn't been a system which intelligently controls appliances, until now.
Many are anxious to hear about Gary’s Footprint in technical terms. Can you explain them for them ?
I should probably start with the e.Point, a hardware device that monitors power usage and is able to turn devices on and off. It's controlled by a central point and communicates over the power line. It also uses very little power, much less than the standby of most appliances. Paul developed it entirely from scratch, and uh... made some 'errors' along the way that lead to... 'interesting' early trials.
We have had to develop our own hardware because existing devices don't provide the control and usage information back to a central point. This is a software design competition however, and the software is what differentiates our project from existing systems. It provides users with a wealth of information about historical data and how they've used electricity in the past, down to an individual appliance level. It allows users to set up rules for what they want to happen; for example if the price of electricity increases dramatically, turn off heaters.
What tools are you using to develop Gary’s Footprint?
Visual Studio 2008 is our primary development tool for our Windows, web and mobile applications, and we're using Windows Server and SQL Server for our back-end. The only component that was not created with Microsoft technologies is the hardware device, due to cost and power usage limitations.
Are there any plans for Gary’s Footprint after Imagine Cup?
While its a bit early to tell what our plans will be, its something we're definitely going to be looking at. Although it would require a bit of polishing (for example, the hardware device), we strongly believe our product could make a difference to the average person's carbon footprint.
How are the preparations going on for the New Zealand finals?
Pretty strong; we've redesigned large parts of our project based on our preliminary experiences, and thanks to the teaching recess have been able to concentrate on code.
Do you blog about Gary’s Footprint?
We have a blog going at http://www.jlaundry.com/tag/Team%20Waikato where we try to explain parts of our project and give tips based on our experiences. Feedback is always appreciated, but don't be offended if we don't get back to you right away. Theres still a week and lots to do...