LOS ANGELES (AFP) — College students with visions of using technology to save the planet vied in an historic theater here this week to represent the United States at Microsoft's global Imagine Cup finals in Paris.
Six teams culled from 16,000 contenders that signed up for Microsoft's annual innovation challenge spent Earth Day in the historic Orpheum Theater, demonstrating software programs aimed at preserving our environment.
Worldwide, 185,000 university students from 100 countries registered in this year's Imagine Cup. One team from each country will compete in Paris in July to be world champion.
"It is our competition to generate passion in teens to use technology to change the world," said Microsoft vice president Chris Weber, head of the company's Western US region.
"Our CEO was a teenager and did the same thing."
The Imagine Cup is in its sixth year, and the theme is sustaining the natural environment on which life depends.
Rochester Institute of Technology students, team Sparx, took the US crown with a low-cost combination of sensors and software that essentially enables homes to monitor themselves and alert owners to energy waste.
Sensors detect conditions such as lights or stoves left on or temperatures too high and then send email or text messages to residents, student Adam Risi explained.
The team pitches their invention as an affordable and advanced form of "smart home" technology that lets people control household systems via the Internet.
"Smart houses let you tell them what to do but they can't talk back to you," Risi told AFP.
"This makes an intelligent house that sends you a message saying I have a problem that you might want to take care of."
Risi is confident that by the time his team reaches Paris it will have a slick prototype that lets people "communicate" with their homes using Internet-linked mobile devices.
"I can pick up my cell phone and tell my house I want a cup of coffee when I get home, turn on the coffee maker," Risi said. "Paris will be a lot of fun."
Winning the US championship also earned Sparx 12,000 dollars (US) in prize money.
New this year are video game and photography categories.
Top finisher in the video game category was "Ecocism" in which players maneuver animated hovercrafts in quests to reforest a barren Earth and fight off spider-like robots intent on harvesting trees.
"People have become so resource hungry they sucked the Earth dry," Mark Aoyama said while showing AFP his team's winning game. "Your mission is to regrow the Earth."
A strong theme among US contenders in the Imagine Cup is online social networking and mobile Internet tools that are defining aspects of their generation's lifestyles.
"You are seeing these kids apply social technology to change things they don't like," said SocialEyes chief executive David Henderson, who was among veteran Internet entrepreneurs mentoring teams at the US finals.
"I think it's a major inflection point that is social. Some call it Web 3.0. This is the new frontier and these kids are a big part of that revolution."
While fueling enthusiasm for technology among students, the Imagine Cup lets Microsoft see ways budding generations are using the US firm's products.
"The raw potential and creativity that these students show in their projects help me to feel extremely optimistic about our future," said Microsoft senior director Scott Davidson, who oversees the US portion of Imagine Cup.
"This is the sub-25 crowd at their best; innovating like mad and fundamentally altering how society interacts with technology."
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