Students fight for app-dev title

At this very moment Alfred Leung and Ting-Yu Wang could be trying to figure out what to do with the US$8,000 they’ve won for designing super-smart digital robots in a global application-development contest. Or they could be trying to figure out where it all went wrong. It rather depends on how good or bad a time they had in Japan, July 28 to Aug. 1, where the Montreal-based duo were competing in Microsoft Corp.’s Imagine Cup.

It’s a wide-ranging match that provides challenges for sys-admins, IT business wannabes, games creators, and even filmmakers from schools around the world. Leung and Wang will have battled their way through the visual games section by now — their chosen category — after having crossed the local gauntlets late last year and earlier this year in Microsoft’s proving ground for young tech pros.

Leung and Wang comprise Team Macrophage. The name? “My partner came up with that,” Leung said during an interview a few weeks ago, before he and Wang went to Japan for the Imagine Cup’s third, final and global round. “She’s studying medicine….I think it has something to do with a cell that engulfs bacteria.”

For the record, a macrophage is “a white blood cell with scavenger characteristics that ingests and destroys foreign substances, such as bacteria and cell debris,” according to the London Health Sciences Centre’s Web site.

Team Macrophage hails from McGill University. Leung’s in software engineering and Wang, as mentioned, studies medicine.

The Imagine Cup’s final round in the City of Yokohama challenged visual games contestants like this duo to expand on the nanobots they created for “Project Hoshimi,” wherein a fictional doctor has devised a miracle cure. To prove the efficacy of his antidote the doctor has injected himself with a virus and is calling on nanobots to aid the healing process, Leung said.

That’s where Team Macrophage and their like come into the picture. Their bots must be savvy enough to gather certain healing molecules and deliver them to strategic points in the doc’s body.

“This is how you cure diseases, apparently,” Leung said. OK, so he didn’t fully understand the science behind the game. No matter. Clearly Leung knew how to play.

“We had eight bots stacked up, and they all worked in unison, whereas a lot of other players just sent their bots all over the place,” he said, recalling the pre-Japan rounds. He pointed out that it’s hard to know exactly how the other contestants built their artificially intelligent helpers, but Team Macrophage’s bots definitely collaborated. “They were all in synch and they stayed in synch, which was a relief for us, because we didn’t really test it that well against other players.”

Daniel Shapiro is Microsoft Canada Co.’s academic program manager. He accompanied Leung, Wang and the other Canuck participants to Japan for the Imagine Cup’s global culmination. This is the contest’s third year in existence, Shapiro said. Three Canadian teams, representing McGill, the University of Western Ontario and the University of British Columbia, went on to fly the maple leaf in Japan. Round three; three years; three teams. Coincidence? It might add up to a powerful trinity.

“We have some of the most talented students in the world here in Canada,” Shapiro said. “It’s great to be able to allow them to stand up and show what they’re made of.”

The Imagine Cup is not your average technology contest. Consider the short-film category, wherein students get to put their electronic thoughts to artistic practice. It’s unusual for such an engineering-minded thing as a tech match to include an arts portion, but Shapiro suggested art and science aren’t so distant. “Short films are a neat way for students to express their thoughts about technology and its impact on society,” he said.

For visual gamers like Team Macrophage, the Imagine Cup began with a tutorial — a basic how-to in the tools they’d use, including C# and Visual Studio, Microsoft’s development environment. Then the contestants were to build, using their programming skills, the molecule-collecting bots in Project Hoshimi. The teams then pit their creations against each other in matches to see which bots would collect the most points.

“We just started small and kept adding things to it,” Leung said, describing the creation that would make Team Macrophage the Canadian champs. “To test it we basically played it against older versions. That’s why we couldn’t get a really good test for a two-player game.” The reflexive examinations showed the team how the bot was improving, but it was tough to know how it would stack up in real bouts.

Team Macrophage’s members didn’t know what they were in for in Japan. “I’m not sure we get to code anything,” Leung said. Details were sketchy.

Shapiro was almost as deep in the dark as Leung. “The visual gaming category will be given an extension of the same problem, but way more challenging….It’s kept very confidential. I haven’t even seen the twists. I’ve only been told it’s going to be a challenge for them.”

The finer points of the final battle would have been revealed to the participants last week, of course. And if Team Macrophage attained the top prize against the seven other contestants competing in the visual games’ ultimate round, Leung and Wang will have US$8,000 in their pockets by now. Second place offered US$4,000; third got US$3,000.

Everyone goes home richer.

“Before starting this competition, I knew nothing about C#,” Leung said. “I learned a lot about it. I learned Visual Studio, which I’d never used before….It’s a good experience to meet other people, socialize at the competition and get some contacts.”

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