SA students design crowd control contraption

Fresh from making their presence felt at Microsoft’s recent world cup of technology in Poland, South African students Kieron Ekron and Jacobus Bijker are hoping that their innovative crowd control system will be taken to the next level.

The University of Johannesburg students arrived in Warsaw for The Imagine Cup earlier this month (July 3 – 8) on a wave of optimism buoyed by the vuvuzela and the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa.

Like Bafana Bafana who went out fighting but did not make the next round, Ekron and Bijker were thrilled to have made the shortlist of 400 hi-tech student programmers from all over the world. They were a hit with their vuvuzela, as students from all around the world took turns to have a blow. Confident and encouraged by the positivity towards South Africa, the duo was expected to make the next round but found themselves up against stiff competition.

This year, the big winners were from Thailand and Taiwan, where Team Skeek won in the Software design category for their project that translates sign language, while the Taiwan’s SmarterME scored in the Embedded Development category with a device that targets a home’s biggest energy user. The other big winner was the team By Implication from the Philippines, which won in Game Design for its game that uses social media to encourage young people to get involved in volunteering.

“It was good to see that our solution and system is on par with the best the world has to offer,” says Ekron. “Of the 300,000 students worldwide that competed in the Imagine Cup, only 400 made it into the finals. Although we may not have made it into the second round of the competition, we have had a lot of interest expressed in our system during the 2 days of the showcase.”

Last year, the duo won the South African leg of the global contest, which has been running since 2003. “Jaco and I have had a terrific time in Warsaw, where we’ve enjoyed touring the city and seeing the sights,” he continues. “The competition has been a rewarding experience, in that meeting the other teams, seeing what they have done and learning from them has been a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Although they seemed confident and comfortable when difficult questions were asked, Ekron added that making their presentation to the judges was a nerve-wracking experience. “No matter how many times you practice a presentation, or how well you prepare, there’s always the fear that something could go wrong. Luckily, our presentation went very well, and was well received by the judges, with two of them returning to our stand during the showcase to tell us that they really enjoyed our system.”

UJ’s Academy for Information Technology Professor, Elize Ehlers, says the programme has evolved from a simple stadium crowd control solution to cater for a much broader reach of applicability.

“With South Africa hosting the World Cup and logistics personnel scrambling to get services positioned in the right place at the right time, it becomes all too apparent that computer-generated simulation packages are the solution of the future, saving both time and money in enhancing security and delivering a satisfactory end-user experience,” said Prof Ehlers.

South Africa’s recent record in the competition has been exemplary, with the 2008 Imagine Cup winners, – a solution to SA’s frenetic public transport systems – still hailed as one of the competition’s overall biggest success stories.

The head of Microsoft’s developer and platform team, Clifford de Wit, says the pair represents the next generation of technology and business leaders in South Africa. “Their creativity and innovation demonstrates how technology can make a difference in peoples’ lives in the way we think, work and communicate,” said De Wit. “Those aspiring to become technology leaders need to continue getting their hands dirty playing with technology and pushing the boundaries of innovation.”

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SA students design crowd control contraption