Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I’m a Dare to Dream Different Challenge Semi-Finalist!


At Microsoft PDC08 this past November I stopped and talked to the guys in the .net Micro Framework booth (like you do with every other booth at those conferences).  Since I’ve never really worked at a company that built devices that would need this type of technology, this was just one of those “yea that’s neat but I’ll never use it” bits of info.  The one thing I did carry away from our conversation was that they were hosting a contest and were giving away some really neat pieces of hardware to the semi-finalist and even bigger prizes to the finalist.  So, I took one of their flyers and a week or so later I sent in an idea…

The rules for entry were simple.  Come up with an idea of how you would use the .net Micro Framework to make a useful invention and write it up in 250 words or less.  Not much work there.  I had an idea and spent about 20 minutes submitting my entry.  Then I basically forgot about the contest thinking that my idea was probably not sophisticated enough to have a chance.

I was wrong.  On January 8th, I received this email...

Semi-finalist notice email(click to enlarge)

and my name on the contest website

Semi-finalists List(look for the hick from Shelbyville ;) 

So, what was my idea?  Well, at the time this was all happening I was in the process of installing an invisible dog fence at our house.  I was running the wire so that I could section off different parts of the yard where I might want the dog to run.  He could be isolated to just the area where his dog house was at if we were having a party outside.  He could be allowed to roam the whole backyard, but not the driveway in case visitors were coming and didn’t want to be greeted at their car door by Zeus (yes, he’s as mighty as his name).  Or he could just be allowed to roam the whole yard.  You get the picture. 

To make all this work was either going to require a bunch of manual re-wiring every time I wanted to change the zones where he could run or I was going to have to configure an array of switches which would still take considerable knowledge of the system in order to operate.

My idea was to create a touch screen interface that would allow a user to simply touch an aerial photo of their yard to configure which zones the dog would be allowed to roam.  Here’s my actual submission…

I would build a touch control system for invisible dog fences. It would show an aerial photo of the owner's property and allow them to touch areas of the yard where the fence should be activated/deactivated. This could possibly be combined with outdoor cameras to allow the owner to control the device over the internet based on where the dogs are currently located.

Invisible fence systems are becoming very popular. However, most are setup as an all or nothing solution. To isolate particular parts of the yard currently requires manual re-wiring or complicated switching systems. This would be a very intuitive tool for controlling these systems.

I'm a professional Windows developer and electronics hobbyist. I am also an invisible dog fence user. I've been planning to build a control system similar to the one described using LEDs and switches, but after meeting with Microsoft at PDC2008 and discussing the possibilities of the .NET micro framework, I'm now excited about the possibilities of this approach. However, I'm unable to justify the cost of the hardware on my own. I had three years of electrical engineering in college before deciding to major in computer science. I can make this work.

and the attached aerial photo of my yard that resembles what the touch screen would look like…


So, now that I’m one of the 50 semi-finalist now what?  Well, my prize for making it this far is that Microsoft will be sending me a Tahoe-II development board and software that I can use to build a working prototype.  The end product of this stage will be a video that I must produce that will demonstrate what I have developed. 

TahoeII-DemoThe Device Solutions Tahoe-II Board 

If my video is selected as one of the five finalist then its off to Microsoft I go to give a live demonstration.  There really hasn’t been any word yet about what the prize is other than there are “$101,000 in prizes and numerous other benefits up for grabs”.  Of course, this contest is more about the geekdom fame than it is about the prizes.  It would look really nice on a resume’.  Who knows, maybe one of the invisible fence manufacturers will take an interest.

While I’m waiting for the board and development kit to arrive, I’ll be working on my model yard (complete with a working LED fence.  You can’t see an invisible fence on the video…) and studying up on the .net Micro Framework.  More to come on that as I progress in the days to come.  I only have until March 31st, 2009 to turn in my video so there’s going to be a lot of late nights in the next few weeks…


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