All kinds of props streamed into Kane 110 at the University of Washington Wednesday for the Innovation category of the 2014 Imagine Cup World Finals, but Kazokugurumi was the only team that came bearing stuffed animals: a panda with a red bowtie and a pink bunny.
They seemed like your average plush toys – until they started moving and talking.
Kazokugurumi, made up of four students from the Toba National College of Maritime Technology in Japan, was ready to convince a panel of five judges that their idea, Cuddly Connect, could bring long distance families and friends closer together through a new way of communicating using stuffed animals, Kinect and robots.
The first day of the Imagine Cup World Finals presentations took place Wednesday. These 34 teams from as many countries had traveled thousands of miles, worked for months on their projects (and pitches) and triumphed over others in their category for this moment in front of the judges. At stake is more than $1 million in travel, cash prizes, hands-on mentorship opportunities and a private audience with Microsoft Founder and Technology Advisor Bill Gates.
John Scott Tynes, Microsoft’s senior Imagine Cup program lead, explained the Innovation category was launched in 2013 to provide a forum for projects that were neither games nor “tech for good.”
“Historically, projects have been very focused on tech-for-good issues. We realized that was too narrow a focus and saw more generally that more consumer-oriented projects were having a big impact,” Tynes said. “We’re happy to see the Innovation competition mature and to encourage that kind of free thinking.”
Kazokugurumi, the last presentation of the day, demonstrated their system: On one end would be a busy family with a young child who would have the Cuddly Connect, a stuffed animal inhabited by a robot and equipped with a camera, speaker and microphone. On the other end would be a grandparent using Kinect and a tablet. Microsoft Azure would connect them.
“Grandma can talk and play with her grandchild using the panda,” said Mizuki Shimakage, a designer on the team. Then she showed the video on the big screen – and the audience saw it in action. A young girl playing with a panda, and on another screen, her grandmother moving her arms in sync with the plushy panda and chatting with her as they play together.
“Cuddly Connect is great for all three generations,” said Shimakage, explaining how it also frees up parents from having to constantly watch over their children.
The video then showed a child taking the panda on a bike ride – and again, the grandparent is there, through the Cuddly Connect.
“In Japan, the number of extended families are decreasing every year, which is a change in the cultural structure,” said Palin Choviwatana, who is studying information engineering at Toba. “This is a worldwide trend. Working parents can’t look after children all the time, they need help. Children get lonely and they want to play with someone. Grandparents miss their grandchildren.”
All day, teams turned on their professional presentation skills to leave an impression on judges. They came ready to compete with ohhh-inspiring live demos, matching clothing and banners, animated PowerPoint slides and videos.
The judges will come up with preliminary scores and feedback and teams will incorporate that into the second day of competition, Thursday, when they demo their projects during the hands-on judging round.
Judges drilled competitors on alternatives to their products, business models, true cost analysis and broad market appeal. They also gave them recommendations, forcing them to define their differentiation pitch.
Kazokugurumi tested the system on couples, kids and grandparents, who all told the team, “I want one!” They told judges their hope is to connect through a mobile network and pitch to toy retailers, with the initial price for the plush robot at $250.
Judges questioned them about their focus, making them aware of the challenges of hardware production.
“Hardware margins are tough, you’ll want to spend time researching that,” said John Shewchuk, a technical fellow who leads the DX engineering and technical evangelism team at Microsoft. “But I think your software is very exciting, how you’re using it to drive interaction through Kinect. You have strong and unique skills in that space. You’ll probably be able to find more people who can build your product inexpensively. Maybe focus on your strengths.”
Another judge, Rahul Sood is general manager of Microsoft Ventures, gave them an alternative route.
For instance, they could sell it as a kit so families could build different plush bodies on top of the robot, with a simple app version on mobile phones. “That’s doable and marketable,” he said.
Microsoft News Center Staff