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Microsoft's Imagine Cup Encourages Risk, Innovation

It might be tempting to write off corporate activities on Earth Day as empty, cynical, or too little too late. But as I was driving to Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition in downtown Los Angeles this morning and saw the skyline and its brownish air backdrop, my real thought was "Now more than ever."

It might be tempting to write off corporate activities on Earth Day as empty, cynical, or too little too late. But as I was driving to Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition in downtown Los Angeles this morning and saw the skyline and its brownish air backdrop, my real thought was "Now more than ever."The Imagine Cup is an annual competition calling on students around the world to create technology applications that make the world a better place. There are video game and digital arts categories, but the one that interested me most was software design -- seven finalists from colleges and universities around the country competing to find ways to improve the environment, reduce carbon footprints, and make smarter use of natural resources.

Actually one of the participating students said it more concisely. "We're trying to do something that hasn't been done before, merging creativity with innovation and technology."

The winning entry in the software design category was a project called "Reactivity," developed by the Sparx team from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Their idea was to use networked sensors to measure and/or control electrical use, temperature, light, sound, motion. Office buildings or residences could be programmed to keep all these parameters in specific ranges, or to shut off HVAC if no motion is detected in an area for, say, 15 minutes. The sensors can be accessed and programmed via cell phone; all the system's data is stored for future study and analysis.

A couple entries tried to automate the process of measuring -- and reducing -- an individual's carbon footprint. But "CarbonCart," built by a team from Seattle Pacific University, took second-place honors by going a little further with its eco-friendly front end to For a small premium of 5% to 8% of the Amazon purchase, shoppers buy carbon credits to offset the environmental impact of their purchases. Shoppers can then designate the credits for renewable energy, reforestation, or energy efficiency projects.

The third-place winner was part art project, part educational tool. "Lemon Sketch," a joint effort of students from Carnegie Mellon University, William & Mary, and UCLA, is a networked whiteboard application equipped with sound and video for interactive instruction or collaboration. Sessions can be stored and reviewed for study purposes; instructors also can simultaneously monitor a group of students working on the same assignment. The networked aspects foster sharing of best practices among instructors, and even introduce an artistic element to course materials or work products that help designers think about their intended results differently.

The Imagine Cup was part of a two-day, Microsoft-sponsored event in Los Angeles built around innovation and technology. Writer and PBS personality Tavis Smiley lauded this morning's participants and attendees for their ideas and contributions. "Courage, conviction, and commitment is what it takes to be an innovator," he told the audience, composed largely of local high school students. And most people never summon the courage it takes to risk failure. "The greatest ideas in this country can be found in graveyards," Smiley said, recalling something his grandfather often repeated. "Most people never act on their great ideas and take them to the grave instead."

That courage piece got forgotten later in a sidebar among some panelists over whether China and India are technology's new leaders, and which country is the most competitive. What I appreciate about competitions like this is the encouragement of risk-taking, where failure is a real possibility. It's a place where every country and culture could benefit.

And they'll get their chance, when the Imagine Cup moves on to its global finals in France in early July. Let's see what the world's great, unfettered minds can imagine. We certainly do need it, now more than ever.

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