Imagine Cup – how it all began

Laurent Ellerbach, audience marketing manager of Central and Eastern Europe at Microsoft, talks about the beginnings of the largest technology competition for students.

Imagine Cup 2012 off to a flying start

Morris and I were trying to assess the possibilities of introducing a new way to engage students from around the world, inspire them and challenge their technological skills. Pretty quickly, we came up with the idea of having a technology competition for students. We also agreed on the core values to be carried by this competition: teamwork, technology, sustainability of projects and solving real-world problems.

During the meeting we presented our concept to all present. We were pleased that everyone liked the idea and that we decided together to implement the idea as soon as possible. TechEd Europe in Barcelona in July 2003 seemed like the perfect place to hold the first finals of the competition.

The values we proposed met with full approval and we just needed to define them correctly. We assembled a team of 4 people so as to ensure the diversity of the group. Of course, technology was to be the nail of the show. We wanted to encourage the use of as many technologies as possible, client, server and mobile. We were also open to third-party solutions that would emphasize the importance of the interoperability aspect.

Working with schools and universities made us realize that on most projects, students work without addressing real world challenges and because of this, it is not very exciting for them. At the same time, there are many student associations from around the world developing real projects to help poor countries, support young entrepreneurs, or teach other students. These types of projects really motivate them because they have a real impact. So we decided we wanted to engage their skills and creativity to create projects that help solve real problems and, most importantly, are sustainable.

In less than 12 hours, the software design category was born, we also found a finals date, and 12 countries decided to launch a local competition and send the winning team to the first world finals in Barcelona.

Where did the name Imagine Cup come from?

All 12 countries that agreed to launch a local Imagine Cup competition created the local competition name themselves. In France, the country where I was working at the time, we decided on “Unlimited Coding.” We also came up with the idea of coding non-stop for 4 days and 3 nights to select the best team. This format can be compared to Hackathon, which is popular today.

The French event was held in May and Morris Sim, Microsoft Worldwide Academic Director, attended. He forwarded us the name that his team came up with: Imagine Cup! We loved it right away! We were thrilled with the word “Imagine” in the name of the competition because we knew that students would imagine our future and then create it. For the first 2 years, most Imagine Cup countries combined their local competition name with the Imagine Cup brand. However, by the third year, all countries began calling the competition simply Imagine Cup. The inaugural Imagine Cup World Finals in Barcelona in 2003 were an immediate success. Programmers and IT professionals who visited the finals were simply delighted with the projects. Jean-Philippe Courtois, vice president of Microsoft International, announced the winner in his closing speech. Since then, he has been one of the biggest fans and supporters of Imagine Cup.

The French team that participated in the first Imagine Cup competition came up with an amazing design for integrating different technologies into a visual game that we gave them. Although they didn’t win the competition, the concept of us running the competition as a 4-day event became a new category the following year called: Project Hoshimi.

Professor Hoshimi and his great discovery

The first Imagine Cup World Finals in Barcelona received very positive feedback, from within the company as well as from the external community: students, faculty and developers. Morris Sim, Worldwide Academic Director at Microsoft, and his team decided to hold the competition again and add new categories. Our original vision of holding a competition similar to the Olympics, but for technology students, was becoming a reality. We decided on 4 categories: Short Film, Rendering, Algorithm and Software Design. The new categories generated interest from students, faculty, and media during the second Imagine Cup World Finals in Brazil in 2004.

The following year we decided to introduce another category based on the 4 days of coding organized in 2003. Since the 2005 finals were held in Japan, after a quick brainstorm, a name for this new category was created: “Project Hoshimi”, officially called “Visual Gaming”. Professor Hoshimi had made a great discovery: how to heal the human body using nano technology. So the mission of this category was to program robots! This category was so popular among students that we kept it until the 2008 World Finals in France. A year later, this category was replaced by the Real Gaming category. However, there are still plenty of “Project Hoshimi” fans around the world, where, as in Uruguay, competitions using its principles are still held.

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