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Originally published June 30, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified July 1, 2010 at 6:58 AM

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Microsoft's Imagine Cup aims to inspire creativity

The Imagine Cup, a Microsoft global competition for students to build software to combat global problems, will hold its final round in Poland the first week of July.

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft Imagine Cup

When: July 3 to 8.

Where: Warsaw, Poland.

Students: About 325,000 students from more than 100 countries registered to participate in the Imagine Cup. The final event will feature 400 students from 78 countries.

Finalists: To read about the student finalists, go to www.imaginecup.com. You can also vote on a People's Choice award online through July 7.

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As the world's best soccer players battle for the World Cup in South Africa, an elite group of student engineers will gather in Poland from Saturday to July 8 to crunch code for Microsoft's Imagine Cup.

Soccer fans will gather in bars to drink beer at 7 a.m.; Microsoft engineers in Redmond will sip morning coffee at their desk and stream video of students showing off software aimed at fighting global problems — reducing hunger and poverty, improving education and child health.

It's a World Cup for nerds.

The Imagine Cup competition has drawn 325,000 students from 100 countries this year. Microsoft uses the competition to spark software creativity and to encourage students to use Microsoft software.

"It's about getting the next generation of innovators doing exciting things not only for the world but doing great and amazing things on the Microsoft platform," said Jon Perera, general manager with the Microsoft Education group.

The competition began in April with national finals that took place online and in 68 events in different countries. The finalists from those competitions — about 400 high- school, college and graduate students representing 78 countries — are competing in Warsaw. As in the Olympics, student teams compete for titles in several categories, such as game design and digital media.

Microsoft, which declined to say how much it spends on Imagine Cup, awards $240,000 in cash prizes and pays for student travel to the national and international final events. Cash prizes range from $2,000 to $25,000.

"Our jaws drop on the floor" when they see the entries, Perera said.

A University of Washington team designed a touch-screen diagramming program for blind students to collaborate with other students.

Two United Kingdom students built a Facebook app to help families separated by natural disaster, such as the earthquake in Haiti, find each other online.

To help park officials find out why fish were dying at a Russian national park, a team of students in the South Ural designed software to remotely monitor water pollution.

Four South Korean students built a website to connect people doing random acts of kindness.

The UW project involved graduate students Shaun Kane, 29, and Kristen Shinohara, 30, who are competing in a category to build accessibility apps for tablet computers.

Starting in the winter, they used their spare time to build an educational application called OneView for blind students to draw diagrams with sighted students on touch-screen tablet computers.

By encouraging collaboration through technology, Kane said, "this helps prevent students who are visually impaired from being siloed" from others.

The software uses voice recognition, read-aloud technology and large menu buttons to make the software accessible to the visually impaired. It can also sync with other laptops wirelessly or use a split screen for a sighted and blind person to share one tablet computer.

"It's pretty exciting just to be finalists," Shinohara said. "It's very competitive."

Microsoft started the Imagine Cup eight years ago with 2,000 students. Perera said it really took off in 2005 when organizers changed the competition to focus on advancing the United Nations' Millennial Development Goals, such as improving education, environment, child health.

The competition gives Microsoft a chance to market new products to student programmers. For instance, Microsoft set up a category this year to build apps for Windows Phone 7, a new mobile-phone operating system planned for a holiday release.

Some projects take on a life of their own after the competition.

A 2008 team from Seattle Pacific University built CarbonCart.com, a carbon-neutral shopping site where shoppers can buy products from Amazon.com and offset the environmental impact of shipping items with carbon credits that go toward renewable energy and reforestation.

A team from 2006 built software for mobile phones using location-based technology and vibration technology to help blind people navigate the streets of São Paulo, Brazil. The project has received $500,000 from a Brazilian research funding agency.

Kane and Shinohara plan to continue working on OneView whether or not they win. Over the summer, they will have people test out the software and use the feedback for the next version.

If they win in their category, they will each get $8,000 and a touch-screen tablet computer.

"I'll use it to pay for expenses most likely," Kane said. "Bills and stuff."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

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