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Canadian team smartARM (Samin Khan, left, and Hamayal Choudry) lifts the Microsoft Imagine Cup after their win. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Confetti littered the stage as one lucky team raised the cup. No, it wasn’t the World Cup, or the NBA finals. This winning team had built a tech project from scratch, all focused on solving big global problems.

As judge Anil Dash, an entrepreneur and the CEO of Glitch, put it, “This wasn’t tech for tech’s sake.”

At Microsoft’s 16th annual Imagine Cup world finals, Canadian team smartARM, a robotic hand that uses artificial intelligence to adjust its grip, took home the title and a grand prize: more than $130,000 in cash and Microsoft Azure grants, and a mentoring session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Three teams competed on the final day of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup world finals. Over the course of the past two days, 49 teams from 33 countries were whittled down to three. The Imagine Cup is Microsoft’s annual student tech and innovation competition.

This year, big themes included artificial intelligence, big data, and mixed reality. Microsoft corporate vice president of Azure growth and ecosystems Charlotte Yarkoni said that 40 percent of the teams that entered the Imagine Cup this year had projects that dealt with artificial intelligence. Two of the three teams in the final had projects focused on accessibility, one of Microsoft’s banner initiatives since Satya Nadella became CEO in 2014.

One such project is smartARM, this year’s Imagine Cup winner. smartARM is a prosthetic hand that uses artificial intelligence to assess the grip necessary to hold an object. The project was developed by Hamayal Choudry, a second year student at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and Samin Khan, a third year at the University of Toronto.

smartARM (Samin Khan, back, and Hamayal Choudry) delivers its final presentation at the Microsoft Imagine Cup world finals. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The robotic hand has a camera embedded in the palm. Using Azure’s computer vision, machine learning, and cloud storage tools, smartARM recognizes objects, then decides how to grip the object and stores that data in the cloud. During the team’s final presentation, smartARM had a technical issue and the team couldn’t showcase the product. Despite the glitch, Choudry continued with his presentation, and the judges didn’t seem bothered — in the end, smartARM took home the prize.

In the future, smartARM is looking at partnerships with the Canadian government and with hospitals.

“We reached out to the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and we had a positive response,” Choudry said in a press conference after the event.

The smartArm robotic hand. (Photo via Microsoft.)

Since Nadella became the CEO of Microsoft in 2014, the company has put a stronger emphasis on its commitment to accessibility, from products like the Xbox adaptive controller to Microsoft’s $25 million AI for Accessibility initiative. Microsoft was also the presenting sponsor for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this past June.

In second place was the Greek team iCry2Talk. The team consists of three undergraduates — Anastasia Ntracha, Andreas Loutzidis, and Jason Hadzikostas — at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The project takes a baby’s cries and translates it into text, images, or a voice message for the parent. Using a smartphone app, parents can record the baby’s crying.

Greek team iCry2Talk at the Microsoft Imagine Cup world finals. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The app, using machine learning and deep learning algorithms, then categorizes the cry into possible reasons for the crying related to the baby’s physical or emotional needs and supplies some care tips.

“It’s a problem that affects everyone with a global impact,” Ntracha said. “We thought it was very important to bridge that communication gap.”

Japanese team Mediated Ear took third. Ken Tominaga and Kunihiko Sato from the University of Tokyo worked on a software that will help those with impaired hearing to isolate one speaker in a world full of noise.

The software and accompanying smartphone app records the “target person,” or person whose voice is to be isolated, for a minute. Then, using machine learning and after a training period of 30 minutes, the app can play back the isolated voice.

Mediated Ear delivers its final presentation at the Microsoft Imagine Cuo world finals. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

One concern the judges had was this time the software needed to learn every time the user met a new person. Tominaga brought up a possible solution for the future: linking the software to Facebook, and using social media to identify voices to save time.

Though the software is only being used through the connected app at the moment, the team told judge Erica Brescia, the co-founder and COO of Bitnami that one potential business model involved licensing their software to hardware companies to possibly integrate Mediated Ear with hearing aids.

During the judges’ deliberation period, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella came to the stage and expressed his support of the top three teams, and all 49 that made the world finals. “The impact that you all can have is just enormous, the opportunity is enormous,” Nadella said. “I also think there is an amazing sense of responsibility.”

Chloe Kim at the Microsoft Imagine Cup world finals. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Nadella also brought special guest Chloe Kim to the stage to a round of applause. Kim was a sensation at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February, where she became the youngest woman to win gold in the snowboarding half-pipe at the age of 17.

Nadella asked her for her advice as a young person at the top of her game, much like the students who competed in the world finals.

After reflecting on her journey, Kim had one piece of advice to give: “Keep working hard, because the worst thing you can do is take a step back and relax.”

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