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People's Choice award winner XXX.
People’s Choice award winner Yasaman Sefidgar explains her concept to an attendee. Credit: Kristin Osborne, University of Washington.

For the 11th year, the students and faculty at the University of Washington’s Computer Science & Engineering Department displayed some of the best, brightest and most complicated projects they are working on as part of the annual open house event Wednesday.

In what could best be described as not your elementary schooler’s science fair, the competition took over the six-story Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering with more than 80 teams and their poster boards spread throughout the facility. But instead of vinegar and baking soda volcanos, teams pursued complex problems and solutions, like using machine learning to predict possible surgical complications, ways to teach robots how to handle sensitive liquids and figuring out food triggers for people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Categories included robotics, graphics and games from learning, database systems, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, systems architecture, health applications and many more.

As part of the event, Madrona Venture Group awarded the annual Madrona Prize to the teams whose ideas had the most commercial appeal. Each team member from the runners up got $250 from Madrona, while winning students got $1,000 a piece.

XXX celebrates his Madrona Prize win at the University of Washington's Computer Science and Engineering open house.
Mehrdad Hessar celebrates his Madrona Prize win at the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering open house.

The winner of the top prize was The Next Big Leap in Backscatter Communication, a project that shows backscatter communication can occur over longer distances than originally thought. Backscatter communication involves drawing power from ambient signals like radio or WiFi to let battery-free devices to communicate.

The project builds on previous UW research on ambient backscatter. The big leap project is led by Vamsi Talla, CSE postdoc; Mehrdad Hessar and Bryce Kellogg, UW Electrical Engineering Ph.D. students; Shyam Gollakota, CSE faculty; Josh Smith, CSE and EE faculty.

“The department is proving in so many ways it is the seed for not only great research work, but innovation and development that is being shared and experienced throughout the world,” Matt McIlwain, Madrona managing director said at the event Wednesday.

Numerous project displayed crammed into rooms in the University of Washington's Computer Science and Engineering Building. GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy.
Numerous project displayed crammed into rooms in the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering Building. GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy.

Attendees got to vote on their favorite ideas for the People’s Choice awards. Those winners got $1 a prize from Ed Lazowska, chair of UW’s CSE department, and a picture of a backpack, since the actual merchandise was on backorder.

Here are the runners up for the Madrona Prize and People’s Choice winners and runners up:

PipeGen: Data Pipe Generator for Hybrid AnalyticsBrandon Haynes, CSE Ph.D. student; Alvin Cheung and Magda Balazinska, UW CSE faculty

Just Say NO to Paxos Overhead: Replacing Consensus with Network Ordering: Jialin Li, Ellis Michael, Naveen Kr. Sharma, and Adriana Szekeres, CSE Ph.D. students; Dan R. K. Ports, UW CSE faculty

Programming by Examples for Industrial Data WranglingAlex Polozov, CSE Ph.D. student; Sumit Gulwani, Microsoft; the Microsoft PROSE team

CSE People’s Choice Award Winner: Situated Tangible Robot Programming: Yasaman S. Sefidgar, visiting researcher, UW CSE; Prerna Agarwal; Maya Cakmak, UW CSE faculty

Runner up: When the White Coats Leave: Unsupervised Decoding of Long-term, Naturalistic Human Neural Recordings with Automated Video and Audio Annotations: Nancy Xin Ru Wang, CSE Ph.D. student; Jeff Ojemann, Seattle Children’s Hospital; Ali Farhadi, UW CSE faculty; Bing Brunton, UW Biology; Rajesh Rao, UW CSE faculty

TummyTrials: Using Self-Experimentation to Detect Individualized Food Triggers: Ravi Karkar, Jessica Schroeder, and Daniel Epstein, CSE Ph.D. students; Laura Pina, CSE postdoc; Jeffrey Scofield, UW CSE staff; James Fogarty, UW CSE faculty; Julie Kientz and Sean Munson, UW HCDE faculty; Roger Vilardarga, Duke University; Jasmine Zia, UW Medicine

The open house event is a showcase for UW’s computer science program and part of its Annual Affiliates Meeting, where faculty, students, alumni and local businesses all come together. In addition to the student ideas showcase, there is also a recruiting fair. Lazowska commended the relationships built between the university and community, saying they have played a big role in the ascendance of UW’s computer science program.

“The greatest thing about Seattle is how the business community and individuals and the university work together to get things done,” Lazowska said.

UW’s computer science department has been on a roll lately. Two companies that originally spun out of UW hit some big milestones this summer. RFID chip maker Impinj went public, and machine learning company Turi was purchased by Apple for $200 million. One of the groups at the showcase event could be the next big thing to come out of UW.

And students are noticing this momentum. Computer Science & Engineering this year became the leading “first-choice” major among confirmed incoming freshmen at the University of Washington, surpassing the longtime leading preferred major, Business Administration.

The planned UW Computer Science & Engineering Building. Credit: LMN Architects.
The planned UW Computer Science & Engineering Building. Credit: LMN Architects.

The interest among students coincides with rising demand from major corporate players. The need for computer science graduates has reached new heights in the Seattle region due to a strong startup ecosystem, Amazon’s rapid growth, and the opening of Seattle-area engineering offices by Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies. In addition, engineering is becoming an increasingly important role at non-tech companies.

The demand is so great that UW is planning to build a second computer science building, giving it more capacity across the street from the existing building. Amazon and Microsoft have donated $10 million a piece to the effort to raise about $110 million for the new building. Following the big Amazon donation earlier this month, UW had raised about $86 million.

The plan is to begin construction in January, Lazowska said, and the building would open in 2019. The new 130,000-square-foot building will double the capacity of the program, allowing it to award more than 600 degrees annually, university officials say.

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