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Yesterday was intense. As a judge on the preliminary round of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, which pits teams of university students against each other in a bid to find the top four most innovative and potentially world-changing projects, it was a blur of powerpoint slides and Dragon’s Den-style questioning as we got through twenty 20-minute pitches in the course of the day.

MS tags - potential to replace paper receipts

MS tags - potential to replace paper receipts

The idea of the competition is for students with software, engineering or technical backgrounds to come up with solutions aimed at tackling the world’s big problems – the UN’s Millennium Development Goals were given to contestants as an indication of the big issues they should be seeking to tackle.

As such the projects fell quite neatly into a few categories – reducing our carbon footprint, improving the efficiency of health services, getting better cut through with education programmes and fighting exploitation of children, especially in third world countries.

There were some big hairy audacious plans – one team outlined a plan to buy old transport ships and fit them with desalination plants roving around the coast of India purifying water as regions suffered drought, water shortages or natural disasters.

Another came up with a great concept to get rid of thermal paper receipts which are used by a large number of retailers but which are not recyclable, creating a huge amount of waste and killing millions of trees unnecessarily. The idea involved using a new type of technology Microsoft has developed, an MS tag, which is like a souped-up barcode which features a nice picture that can be scanned. The MS tag could be swiped at the check out at a supermarket allowing the customer’s receipt to be sent to an online portal instead of being printed out. You could then get some nice analytics online about your supermarket spending and redeem discounts by printing out individual coupons or displaying them on your mobile phone screen and having them scanned when you return to the store.

But the teams had to not only have a big concept, but demonstrate that they were some way down the track to making it a reality, which led us to our top four finalists, details of which are below.

Team One Beep was the highest scoring team, with a solution to a big problem that’s ingenious in its simplicity and has already proven to be technically possible. The idea is to leverage off the growing number of XO laptops available in third world countries as part of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme which is active here in New Zealand where a network of testers including Sciblogger Fabiana Kubke help refine the low-cost computer’s features.

OLPC + FM rad = lessons beamed to computers

OLPC + FM radio = lessons beamed to computers

There are 1.2 million OLPC laptops now in use, but there remains a big problem – third world countries don’t really have the communications infrastructure to get content out to those laptops in a reliable fashion. Mobile networks often don’t extend into rural areas, satellite and fixed wireless systems are too expensive options. Team Beep came up with a great idea – why not use the readily available FM broadcast frequency to send out a stream of data that can be picked up by a bog standard FM radio. The signal is then fed into the sound card of the XO latop and recorded using a small piece of open source software. The software then converts the audio signal, which consists of a stream of beeps representing letters, into text and assembles it as a document.

Radiotext-type services using the FM network are not a new idea, here’s one project from Europe seeking to offer similar services and digital radio is already rolled out in many countries delivering weather, traffic and channel information to radio users. But the innovative part of One Beep’s solution is the interface between an FM radio and the XO laptops used as part of the OLPC programme. With some refinements, this should be a piece of software that cna be simple to use and allow children in remote villages in Africa to be sent school lessons updated regularly.

Currently, the data throughput One Beep is achieving is fairly low – 2Kbps (kilobits per second). But the team is confident compression technology can increase this to 10Kbps. I think they’d find others are working in this area who may be worth partnering with to get the data throughput possible via FM radio even higher.

This is a solution that could be rolled out tomorrow – it requires use of a small sliver of radio spectrum, a radio transmitter to send out the signal (the further it needs to go the more powerful the transmitter needs to be) and the software has to be installed on each OLPC machine. Hopefully the competition and One Beep’s making it to the final will give the project the profile it needs to become reality.

The four New Zealand finalists listed below will now compete in another round of judging and give presentations in front of an audience of 500 people in April with the winning team then heading to Poland to take part in the world champs.

The Imagine Cup finalists:

Team One Beep — From the University of Auckland, Team One Beep developed a system for delivering data over conventional radio transmitters; the purpose of which is to enable educational material to be delivered to impoverished schools and communities in areas of the world where there are no phone lines let alone internet services.

Team Enpeda — Also from the University of Auckland, Team Enpeda devised a working prototype of a computer controlled driver assistance system. It uses a cell phone camera and is able to detect the road environment ahead and warn drivers if they stray off course and into danger.

Team eUtopia — From the University of Waikato, Team eUtopia came up with a live video distribution service that links conservation organisations to the public and allows for remote monitoring, private research and even surveillance of animals.

Team Vital Link — From the University of Auckland, Team Vital Link tackle the issue of poverty, in particular, fair trade for artisans in impoverished countries whose handicrafts are often undervalued. The team aims to provide a global marketplace by capitalising on the viral marketing capabilities of Facebook to help these people make enough money to improve their daily lives.

That's me in the middle in the blue shirt with the stupid grin alongside fellow judges and the finalists of the Imagine Cup

That's me in the middle in the blue shirt alongside fellow judges and the finalists of the Imagine Cup