Break into Code with TouchDevelop and the Imagine Cup

One other neat thing that I saw at the summit last week was Minecraft running under the control of a TouchDevelop program. TouchDevelop is a great way to get playing with writing code.

And there's a neat little competition running as part of the Imagine Cup that you might like to have a go at if you are a bit younger than me. Essentially you get to re-invent/re-imagine the classic Breakout game. And there are big money prizes. Find out more here:

https://www.imaginecup.com/breakintocode

James Croft talks Imagine Cup at our Rather Useful Seminar

James Croft came to see us yesterday. He now works for Black Marble and they were kind enough to let him slip across from Leeds to give a Rather Useful Seminar all about the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition. I've been involved with the Imagine Cup as a mentor, judge and competition captain and I think it completely rocks. But I'm very old. I thought it would be more meaningful if someone who has actually taken part came along and said how good it is. Which is just what James did in a well put together presentation. 

Microsoft have done some neat things with your pathway into the competition so that you can build up your development, from pitch video to working software, over the weeks leading up to the finals and get credit, feedback and prizes at every stage. There are the usual three challenge areas, Game Development, App Development and World Citizenship. The World Final is in Seattle and involves trips to Microsoft Campus among other places. And the prizes are awesome. 

The bottom line is that if you're a student you really should engage with the competition. I say this not because I'm convinced you will win (although students from Hull have an enviable record) but because taking part adds hugely to your personal value as a developer and communicator and also sets you up with valuable industrial contacts who will give you feedback, advice, a reference and maybe even a job. It has happened. 

Anyone from Hull who is thinking about forming a team should come and see me so that we can start making plans. 

Thanks for coming and doing such a good job James. I took a video of the session but something strange has happened with the dimmed lighting in the room which has caused awful banding effects on the picture, making it hard to see. Never mind though, James will be doing a webcast of the presentation later on his YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter and find out when it becomes available. 

Imagine Cup 2014 in Seattle

There's a little Imagine Cup shaped hole in my life this year. For the past few years around this time I'd be fretting about scoring and judges and stuff and getting ready to go and help out with the world finals. The Imagine Cup has given me some of the best experiences of my professional life. From the first ever World Finals in 2003, when "Team Random" and I made it to Barcelona and Third Place, to travelling the world as part of the judging and competition management team, the Imagine Cup has been part of my routine for quite a while. 

I've loved seeing the difference that the competition makes to the lives of the thousands (probably millions by now) of students that have taken part over the years. I always say to folks that they can split their lives into two chunks, the bit before you take part and the bit afterwards, and I've seen the "Imagine Cup Effect" go to work time and time again as folks do things that surprise themselves and everyone around them.

This year we've got some Hull involvement, which is splendid. James Croft is going over to Seattle to take part in the finals as a Microsoft Student Ambassador and Danny Brown is in the UK team helping to make Ripple a worldwide winner. 

Me, I'll be watching the World Finals with interest. It's great to see that Satya Nadella, the new Microsoft CEO, is taking part in the judging. It puts into a very strong context just how much Microsoft value future talent from all over the world.

If you are a student you really should take part. Today it's all about "getting yourself out there" and the Imagine Cup is one of the best "out there" places I know.

Mad March Hackathon

This evening I dropped around to see how the Mad March Hackathon was going.  It seemed to me that things were picking up nicely. The event was hosted by the Platform Expo crew and organised by James, one of our students.  I've got an open day tomorrow which means that I will need a considerable amount of beauty sleep tonight, but I stayed around long enough to make encouraging noises and take a few pictures. 

W'eve got some big plans for hackathon events in the future, it's great to see that they are as popular as ever. 

Think of the Audience

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Some time back I wrote a blog post about the most important thing in a project. To save you the trouble of reading it again, I concluded that the biggest risk that any project can run is that you might not  be able to make it work.

I’ve been thinking about presentations in a similar light having seen a bunch over the last week at the Imagine Cup. So, what’s the most important thing in a presentation. Is it the script? The demos? Running to time? The jokes?

Actually I reckon it’s none of these things. The most important thing in any presentation is the audience. If you don’t build your presentation with them in mind then it will not go as well as it should.

Thinking about the audience begins at the start, when you worry about whether or not what you are going to say will make sense, has the appropriate level and the like. I reckon that the thing an audience likes the best is a story, so presentations that have some kind of narrative flow are going to go well.

During the presentation you should be watching the audience to make sure that what you say is going down well, and don’t be too afraid to change tack. Asking questions to confirm that you are going in the right direction is a good idea too. It builds your confidence and establishes a rapport.

If you are now thinking “Great, now I have to worry about watching the audience as well as everything else…” then I’m sorry about that, but I think it s something to keep in mind. For me the worst presentations are where the presenter just talks at the audience. You should try and make the presentation a conversation as much as you can. With very large numbers this can seem a bit daunting, but remember that an audience of 10,000 people is actually made up of 10,000 individual people.. If you think in terms of talking to just one of them, then that will help you manage this.

For me the best presentations I saw last week were those that engaged the audience from the start. So see if you can do the same when you stand up and start talking.

Imagine Cup Memories

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I often refer to the Imagine Cup as “Planet Imagine Cup”. For a few days the real world, time and space have no meaning. You are just in a little space with lots of projects to look at and a whole bunch of interesting folks to talk to. And strange things happen.

The first piece of weirdness was having my picture taken by the chap who wrote Tetris Note that is by the chap, not with him. The whole thing took place in the judging room, when one of the judges wanted his picture taken with me. There’s no accounting for taste. Anyhoo, the only other chap in the room was Alexey Pajitnov, who was kind enough to take the blue HTC device from my friend and snap the picture. I didn’t have the nerve to ask for one of my own, but I did have a chat with him, and told him how many hours I’d spent with my Mark 1 GameBoy and his ingenious game.

The second weird thing took place was when one of the judges, Bill Buxton, mentioned that he’d found a couple of entries in the competition intriguing, and had reached out to Bill Gates (who was something of an expert in the project areas) to let him know what was going on and get his input. Bill had responded with some comments and had made time to pass on details to a couple of experts in the field. Amazing.

Navigating Neatly with Nokia

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This is one thing I found very useful while I was in St. Petersburg. The clever bit started when I downloaded all the maps for this part of the world before I left the UK. This meant that I had full navigation support without needing any form of networking connection. The map application lets me pin locations and also routes onto the start screen. The left hand screenshot shows the hotel pinned to the upper left and a route to the Errata gallery on the right. At any point in my travels I just had to hit that shortcut and I’d get a route to my destination. On the right you can see the route, along with my present position. If it looks like I;m going the long way round it’s because I’m on a bus. The whole thing worked splendidly and got me where I wanted to be.

Heading for Home

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It may not have been particularly bright, but my goodness it felt early. Allowing for the fact that we are 3 hours ahead in St. Petersburg meant that I actually got up at a quarter to two in the morning UK time, so I could be outside ready for the bus to the airport. The good news is that we arrived in plenty of time for the flight.

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This was the view from the plane as we came in to land, taken and processed on my lovely Lumia 920. I see that Nokia have now launched the Lumia 1020, which promises an even more amazing camera. Sign me up.

I’ve been in Russia just long enough to know that I’m sorry to leave it, and I’m going to come back for a proper look around in the future. Thanks to everyone for making the visit so memorable and so darned good.

Art and Imagine Cup Finals

Today I actually had time to take a look around St.Petersburg. We caught the Metro up down and took a look at the Hermitage Museum.

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They it can take at least six hours to tour the museum properly, so we settled for just looking at the imposing building from the outside. One day I’m coming back for a proper tour.

On Monday one of the judges, Bill Buxton, had mentioned that there was a really good contemporary arts museum quite near to the hotel. He reckoned that Erarata was well worth a look. So, with a couple of hours to spare before I had to head off the the world finals I hopped on a bus and went over there. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked, but there was some intriguing stuff on show. I’m not a great art critic, but I like seeing stuff that makes me think.

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This is a singularly appropriate exhibit, given that we have the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, judging at the competition.

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I think this was my favourite exhibit. Not least because it made me think the hardest. I hope they don’t mind me posting a picture.

If (or more accurately when) I go back to St. Petersburg I’m going to set aside a goodly chunk of time to have a proper look round this lovely gallery. And I’ve just discovered they have a gallery in London too, which is going on my list. I managed to make it back to the hotel with just minutes to spare before the busses headed off to the theatre and the World Finals show.

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I took a whole bunch of pictures at the world finals, but curiously the only one that I can find to put on the blog is the one of the UK team (that’s UNITED KINGDOM) winning top prize for the Innovation competition. You can find out all about the all the other results and more details of the WORLD BEATING TEAM FROM THE UNITED KINGDOM at the Imagine Cup site.

I’ll be posting more pictures telling some more Imagine Cup stories (and there are some amazing ones) when I’m somewhere with some power to charge up the Surface.

Hands-On Judging

Today it was time for the judges to get “down and dirty” with the teams. Each team had a 15 minute conversation with each judge in turn, showing their application running and getting scores and feedback from the judge Of course, I’m not a judge, but I was determined to join in the fun. I made it my mission to take a look at every single entry in the competition by the end of the day, and I pretty much made it. Some teams I when they presented, others I met up with on the showcase floor.

I started off by “shadowing” a judge as they chatted with a team, but having nearly bitten my own tongue off several times (nobody is supposed to ask questions except the judge during the demo) I gave up on that and went off to chat to teams that were in-between judge sessions. This was great. Teams seemed only to happy to practice their pitch on me, and I love finding out more about their solutions. Once or twice I got shooed away by a “proper” judge wanting to talk with the team, but it was great to be able to meet everyone. One of my regrets in previous competitions is that I didn’t have time to see all the entries, just the ones that I was judging. However, with my “captain’s hat” I don’t judge this time, so I’m free to go and chat. So I did.

Once the hands-on rounds had finished it was up to the judges to enter their individual scores and then these were combined to get a final score for each team.

And then we found out who gets the prizes. The numbers were unequivocal, which was good (I had this private nightmare of everyone getting exactly the same score).

So, once we had done our work, it was time for some play. First up with a bus ride to boat that would take us to the Winter Palace.

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This was a boat a bit like ours, zooming past.

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Docking

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Now, that’s what I call a palace.

We got a tour of the palace and a potted history of Peter the Great and his dynasty. If you think Shakespeare had some dramatic stories, some of the stuff that went on here proves that real life can also provide big time drama and intrigue. 

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Gold statues and fountains.

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This picture was taken at around 10:30 at night. Amazing

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How it must have looked when Peter was in the house.

Not Judging Judging Day

We had a great day judging the presentations today. I’m not actually a judge this time, I’m the competition captain. This means that I’m involved in making the judging work, but I don’t get to write down any scores.

But I still get to watch lots of the presentations, just to make sure that the judging process is working the way that I think it should. Today I’ve seen a whole bunch of lovely projects. Tomorrow I’ll watch through some of the booth demonstrations and see how well the teams can show off what they’ve made. I’m thinking that they’ll do a pretty good job.

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Of course I’m still wearing the Lego watch….

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I made a very brief visit to the student showcase. Can you guess which country this team member is from.

Imagine Cup Briefing Day

Today is the day that the competition gets going. But first we have to tell everyone, competitors and judges, how everything works. For me this means sorting out presentation content and then getting to to the best bit, which is actually deliver the briefings. John and I had a great time telling folks how it all works, and then we went out to have our pictures taken with the teams. I did have time to take a few pictures, here they are.

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This is the panorama from the front of the hotel. Impressive eh?

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.. and this is a slightly tweaked version of part of the same view.

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The front of the hotel has these flags all around it.

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At the internet cafe they have loads of machines for folks to do their email and surf the web. This is what was on the screens when I walked past. Honest.

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These are the student teams at the World Citizenship briefing. You can tell that this is a proper presentation to actual students because the seats at the front are all empty. They are a great bunch, poised to do some great things…

Heading for St. Petersburg

If I ever go on Mastermind my specialist is going to be “Terminal Z at Frankfurt Airport”. Today I had around 8 hours to study the place and I feel I know pretty much all there is to know about it:

  • It is very clean and tidy
  • They have aeroplanes there
  • …and a MacDonald's
  • Eight hours is around seven hours too long to spend there

Anyhoo, the good news was that I managed to pass the time well enough, particularly after I found the seats with the power sockets to recharge the gadgets.

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This is our plane, being prepped for the last part of the journey.

I met up with Simon and Ben, who had travelled over from the ‘states and were noticeably more wide-awake than I was, but I put that down to my 4:00 am start today. Anyhoo, we arrived in St. Petersburg at the appointed time and, after I was reunited with my “big case” in the luggage claim area (a particularly emotional time for me as I always fret about losing all my extra-tall clothes) we headed for the hotel.

The driver was in a hurry, and we found out why when we arrived at the bridge that links the island containing the hotel with the rest of St. Petersburg. Every night, at around 2:00 am, they open the bridge for a while to let ships go through. We arrived just in time to be among the first to cross the bridge when it re-opened, which was unfortunate in one sense, but did give us a chance to take a look around the place and take some snaps.

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This is the bridge as it opened.

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There was some pretty impressive artwork on the sides.

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St. Petersburg by night.

I got to my room around 3:00 am and then spent a while unpacking my big case and putting everything away. The real stuff starts tomorrow. Can’t wait.

Matt Smith at the Imagine Cup Finals

Imagine Dr Who

Good grief. I mean golly gosh. I mean wow.

I’ve been involved with the Imagine Cup for a while. I sit at my computer writing emails and looking at entries and usually see it as “a student competition that I play a small part in helping to make work”. Then, when I go to the World Finals and I see just how much effort Microsoft put into it, and how much it means to the students that take part, I get the big picture.

I got another dose of “big picture” today when I found out that Matt Smith, currently doing a magnificent job as Dr. Who over on the BBC, will be hosting the World Finals in July. Blimey.

I’ve been a fan of Dr. Who since I watched it in the sixties on a black and white telly that could only receive one channel. To have someone like him taking to the stage on behalf of the competition marks a new high in my book. Amazing.

It looks like they are going to stream the finals live over the interwebs. It should be an awesome night.

Still Time to Enter the Imagine Cup

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There's still plenty of time to enter the Imagine Cup. You could enter any of the competitions, including the one that I’m involved with, which is the World Citizenship Challenge. Every year I encourage students to enter and every year I’m amazed by what they come up with, and how much they learn from taking part.

If you are thinking of making a team and entering, or you’ve got a team, or you want some tricks and tips for working on your entry, I’ve jotted down some notes here.

Consider this, when you get that interview for that dream job, and they ask you the dread question “What have you done that’s awesome"?”, your Imagine Cup would make a very good reply.

The Imagine Cup Refreshed

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Everything gets refreshed from time to time. Superman, Spiderman (twice) etc etc. And now the Imagine Cup. It has been going for ten years and has been incredibly successful, in fact last year’s finals were the best I’ve ever seen. Of course Microsoft could have kept everything the same and planned on the competition staying at the top. But that is not how things work. The best time to refresh is when you are on the crest of the wave, because that is how you go on to even better things.

And so that’s what Microsoft has done. All the elements that make the competition great are still there. You can still get involved to make the world a better place by engaging with the World Citizenship competition. But there are also some new options. The Innovation award lets you take that little idea you had and make it into something amazing. The Games competition lets you show off your ideas for new types of gameplay. And the prizes are even bigger, with $50,000 up for the winning teams in each competition.

I’ve seen first hand the effect of the Imagine Cup on the students that take part. It has changed their lives. Get in on the ground floor at http://www.imaginecup.com/

Rob on Newsnight

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I got an interesting phone call on Friday afternoon from Hannah, a researcher on Newsnight. They were doing a piece about the Imagine Cup and she wondered if I would like to come down to London and take part in a discussion about the competition. After subtly checking to see if it was a wind up by saying “You’re not a student are you?” I decided that it was all above board and agreed to hop on the train on Monday, a situation only slightly complicated by the fact that it was my wedding anniversary the following Tuesday (Solution: take number on wife with me).

And so at 10:30 tonight I found myself sitting chatting with Dame Evelyn Glennie, someone who I have long admired. Such a great person. The subject for the discussion was the project from winners of the 2012 Imagine Cup, Team Quadsquad, who had created a glove that converts sign language into speech. You can see the video of their finalist presentation here. We were debating the value of the technology, and how/if it could be fitted into the lives of the hearing and speech impaired.  For me the best thing about the night was that we were there at all, and that student teams had produced a device which provided the basis for discussion and development of the technology, something that the Imagine Cup is all about.

The whole thing was over in a trice and then we were ushered back out of the studio where I managed to arrange a blurry photograph. We then headed out into the night, Dame Evelyn to go back home and us to celebrate by having a drink in the wrong hotel. Great fun. I think the show will appear on iPlayer at some point in the future. I think the machine at home has recorded it. At least I hope so…

Imagine Cup Winners

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Today we had the World Final presentations. These are the top three teams. Congratulations to all, very well done. I’m very proud to have played a part in getting you folks to the finish podium. The standard this year was even higher than last year, and that was an amazing year too.

What was interesting to me was that of the six finalists, four of them had designed and built their own hardware. Some teams were creating and building surface mount devices (even etching their own circuit boards). Others had undertaken ambitious mechanical designs builds. Several of the teams had applied for patents based on their entries and all of them had workable business plans. As a judge I often had to pinch myself to remind me that these were student teams, not experienced developers pitching several years of effort.

In the afternoon, before the awards ceremony, I spent two very happy hours walking around the showcase booths where each of the 72 teams was set up and telling everyone all about their entries. Special shout out to the team from Peru with their Kinect based solution for helping children with Down’s Syndrome, one team member had even painted his hand bright red to help with the demonstration on the demo floor. Also I must mention the iQube team from Romania, who had designed and built some astonishing electronics inside something not much larger than a couple of matchboxes.

The Imagine Cup this year completely rocked. The organisation was top notch, with Ali and Jeff putting in sterling efforts to make everything just worked. Australia was a fantastic venue and every contestant has had a life changing experiences, as have the judges.Next year the Imagine Cup moves on to Russia. I really, really hope I can get to go there.

Imagine Cup Finalists

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All set for judging

This morning we had our six finalists strut their stuff. We used two ballrooms in the conference centre, and shuttled between them so that the teams had time to set up and we could keep the action flowing. What impressed me was the huge number of students who turned up to see the presentations. The places were packed, which was great. And the presentations delivered, which was excellent too. Once we had seen all the presentations we entered our scores into the judging system and then tomorrow we’ll find out who won at the World Finals. After lunch we headed out on one of the cultural afternoon trips, to the zoo. Which was amazing, with loads of animals and a great view of Sydney.

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Harbour view

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One of these animal pictures is not as real as the others.

Imagine Cup Second Round Fun

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Today we did pretty much what we did yesterday, only this time we took 20 teams down to 6. We also had a new feature for the Imagine Cup 2012, we went down to the Showcase booths and had each team demonstrate their entry. This was great fun. Not having a desk between the judges and the teams made for some great interaction and interesting conversations, at least in the teams that I saw. And then there were six:

  • uCHAMPsys, Taiwan
  • quadSquad, Ukraine
  • Coccolo, Japan
  • MobileEye, New Zealand
  • i-GO, Portugal
  • Symbiosis, Greece

We announced these at 10:00 pm on Sunday night. Finalist presentations tomorrow. Can’t wait.