One of the biggest companies in the world has announced the winner of their flagship student innovation contest.
SmartARM has been chosen as the winner of the 2018 Microsoft Imagine Cup after a rigorous competition that saw over 40,000 students from 200 countries submit ideas and projects to try and win prize money and a selection of services from Microsoft. The Imagine Cup is in its sixteenth year and offers students from around the world a chance to showcase projects they have developed as they compete to win a grand prize of $85,000 in cash and $50,000 in Microsoft Azure grants, as well as a one-on-one mentoring session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Hamayal Choudhry from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Samin Khan from the University of Toronto make up the SmartARM team and went through an intensive competition process before being crowned winners at a gala event in downtown Seattle. SmartARM is a prosthetic device designed for amputees that has a camera built into the palm of the hand. That camera can recognize objects and change the grip of the prosthetic accordingly, whether it be a soda can or a set of keys.
SmartARM is a 3D-printed prosthetic powered by a Raspberry Pi and it is controlled by clenching and unclenching muscles on the upper arm. Its backend is powered by several Microsoft Azure technologies such as machine learning and computer vision, as including these Azure technologies was a prerequisite for students and projects to enter the Imagine Cup in the first place.
Users of SmartARM can also train the prosthetic to recognize new objects, which is then uploaded to a secure cloud for other SmartARM users to take advantage of. This creates a crowdsourced library of objects and grips, lessening the workload for the SmartARM team to manually upload grips and preferences.
Choudhry and Khan’s project is rooted in the fact that many prosthetics are simply too expensive for a typical amputee to afford. Simple prosthetics only offer cosmetic fulfillment, while bionic arms can cost upwards of $100,000. SmartARM can be produced for less than $100 in total, and could eventually operate off a subscription model.
But hoisting the Imagine Cup and earning bragging rights for the next 365 days was not even one of the best moments for the SmartARM team. That came when they were looking for real feedback into their idea.
“One of the highlights for us was the chance to meet a congenital amputee and test our product with her,” Choudhry explains. “When she was able to test SmartARM and operate and control it for the first time, for us, the joy and surprise on her face was mindblowing. That was a very emotional moment for everyone there, and it was so motivating for us to bring that moment to everyone else out there.”
This story was the highlight of SmartARM’s final pitch to a team of judges at the final gala, as their three-minutes on stage wrapped up with an impassioned video of their friend expressing pure excitement at how seamless the prosthetic worked. The judges highlighted how SmartARM was solving real problems for real people, and that ended up being a key differentiator for their win.
“We really saw tech and engineering as a tool to improve the quality of peoples lives, as opposed to building the tallest skyscraper or the fastest plane or that kind of stuff,” says Choudhry. “There are so many valuable tools out there at the moment in AI and cutting-edge research that companies like Microsoft have made available for anyone to use so that education is amazing to solve these humane problems.”
Right now, SmartARM is not yet incorporated as a startup, but this win will give Choudhry and Khan some serious clout—as well as some seed money–to get off the ground. The team has already begun working with Sunnybrook Hospital’s Amputee Care & Prosthetic Services department to continue their research and has been in discussion with Canada’s Minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains for ideas on how to progress further into the startup community.
SmartARM was one of three projects to make it to the final gala, with iCry2Talk from Greece and Mediated Ear from Japan coming second and third respectively. SmartARM was also one of three Canadian teams to be invited to Microsoft’s headquarters as the shortlisted final 49 teams—Hachy from the University of Waterloo and Muma from the University of Toronto also made that final selection.