Students pitch software ideas to Gates

Students from around the world had the chance to show off their software inventions to Bill Gates as part of Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition.

Forty students from around the world got to pitch their software projects to Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates on Tuesday as part of a worldwide software development challenge.

Gates as well as Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, asked questions about and tried out software innovations from the students, who visited Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, headquarters from Egypt, Japan, France, Poland, Korea, the U.S. and the U.K.

The Imagine Cup is Microsoft's worldwide software design competition for students. This year it challenged participating teams to build a product that can enable better education for everyone. It has attracted 100,000 students in 100 countries. The final competition will happen in Korea in August and Tuesday's event was an opportunity for some of the leading teams to present their ideas to Gates on Microsoft's campus.

The group from Egypt designed software that would allow teachers to input test questions and automatically generate a test that is modified for students with special needs, such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. A math test, for example, suited for a dyslexic student would use images of houses rather than numbers in addition problems.

The U.K. team's project would allow kids to learn software programming. Looking at an image of a fish bowl, a user could, for example, move one of the fish and then see on the side of the screen the code that makes the fish move. Gates called the software "fantastic."

"The magic of software can do far more amazing things than people imagine," Gates said in his introduction to the event.

Some of the other teams have developed social networking services that let students with similar interests from around the world meet online. The U.S. team had a service that allows students to help each other learn languages, improving their rankings on the site each time they help out another member.

The Imagine Cup started five years ago and initially attracted 10,000 participants. Then, the contest had a more general technology focus. "It took off when we connected technology to a social cause," said Sanjay Parthasarathy, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Developer & Platform Evangelism Group. Last year students were challenged to focus on medical innovations.

The winner of the first Imagine Cup, Tu Nguyen, spoke to the competitors visiting Microsoft's campus, urging them to let the judges see their passion for their projects.

A student at the University of Nebraska when he won, Nguyen has since built a company, DocCenter Inc., to commercialize his invention and recently received a US$375 million investment. He developed a system for his parents' Vietnamese restaurant that lets wait staff take orders in English using handheld devices and then translates the orders into other languages understood by the cooks, displaying them on monitors in the kitchen. He built the system because his family relied on him for that translation service and he wanted to get out of the restaurant business.

While some of the bright students progressing in the competition could be targets for jobs at high-tech companies like Microsoft, such companies say they are severely restricted in doing so by the limited number of worker visas made available by the government. U.S. lawmakers are currently wrangling over new immigration legislation and high-tech companies are lobbying them to dramatically raise the number of visas the government issues for foreign workers and students. Currently, the government issues yearly 65,000 work visas plus an additional 20,000 visas for students with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

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