Two Cape Town students are jetting off to Egypt in early July to pit their wits against the best computer programming students in the world in a global technology competition.
Nathan Naidoo and Mehrdad Ghaziasgar will be representing South Africa at the finals of the Imagine Cup 2009, a Microsoft-sponsored technology competition, after winning the regional finals in December 2008. They will be competing against young programmers from more than 124 countries.
Naidoo and Ghaziasgar, who are both Masters' students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), will be showcasing their iSign application, that allows deaf people to translate English into sign language – and vice versa – using cell phones and other devices.
Now in its seventh year, Imagine Cup challenges students to develop innovative projects that offer real-world solutions to the challenges articulated by the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. These range from halving extreme poverty and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS to providing universal primary education.
With iSign, a hearing person can speak into a microphone attached to a computer, which translates it into sign language on the screen and displays it via a lifelike three-dimensional avatar. By the same token, a hearing person can record sign language using a commercially available camera, and have it translated into English or into the same avatar.
Naidoo and Ghaziasgar are currently researching the applicability of implementing the system on standard cell phones enabled with cameras. iSign is part of a bigger project at the UWC called SA Sign Language (SASL), which will ultimately be a full translation system for South African sign language – much of which is unique to this country.
The head of Microsoft's developer and platform team, Dave Ives, says judges were "blown away" by the high calibre and innovation displayed in the 2009 entries, promising a wave of real-world impact from South African shores.
"It is inspiring how these students are utilising the power of software and technology innovation to create entrepreneurial businesses that can greatly improve the world we live in," says Ives.
"The Imagine Cup is a great opportunity for young developers to explore the entrepreneurial possibilities of their software solutions. We'll be looking at various ways of helping them bring their ideas to fruition."
At the worldwide finals, students' work will reflect valuable solutions that give a helping hand to the world's sustainable environmental issues while giving them the opportunity to compete for cash prizes.
South Africa's 2008 winners, University of Cape Town students Devin de Vries, Christopher King, Nabeel Nazeer and Nadeem Isaacs, won global recognition for their their "WhereIsMyShuttle?" application, which uses satellite navigation devices to provide bus information directly to commuters by SMS.