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A few weeks back I wrote about a team of University of Auckland engineers who had come up with a seemingly novel and low cost way to get educational information out to villages in poor outlying areas.

Team One Beep was competing as part of the Microsoft Imagine Cup, where teams of university students compete to come up with world-changing ideas – and show some practical evidence of being able to achieve them. As a judge in the preliminary round, Team One Beep was the team I favoured – not only for the technical aspects of the prototype they presented, but for the professionalism of the team and their excellent presentation skills.

On Friday night, Team One Beep beat out the four finalists to become the New Zealand champions in the Imagine Cup. They will now head to Warsaw, Poland to compete with teams from around the world.

Clicking here will tell you more about One Beep’s solution, but this from the official Microsoft announcement sums it up well:  “[It] involves using Team OneBeep’s software to package a file of educational data as audio to be sent via radio waves. This can be received on any cheap AM/FM radio which passes it on to the laptop. The file is then converted back to its original form once it has been received on the children’s laptops, ready to be viewed.”

So, picture  a village way beyond mobile phone networks, fixed wireless broadband infrastructure and too impoverished to have access to satellite services. Such villages are increasingly the target of the One Laptop Per Child programme designed to get low-cost computers into poor communities. Without a way to network the computers, they are of relatively limited use. But every village has FM radios – communities rely on them for information. If a sliver of spectrum on the FM band can be used to send out information that can be decoded and turned into text on the OLPC computers, you have a low-cost way to beaming out daily lessons to thousands of children. An impressive idea and one well on the way to be turned into reality.

The other finalists, all of which had great Imagine Cup projects included:

Team Enpeda — Also from the University of Auckland, Team Enpeda wants to save lives and make roads safer. They have devised a working prototype of mobile phone-controlled Driver Assistance System, using a mobile phone camera to watch the road environment ahead and warn drivers if they stray off course and into danger. Cars of all ages can be cheaply retrofitted with the system.

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 tackled 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.

Team One Beep - Imagine Cup winners for New Zealand

Team One Beep - Imagine Cup winners for New Zealand