Jed Merrill, Producer/Game Designer

Week 12 – US Imagine Cup Finals!

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Team B.E.S.T. arrives in San Francisco around 1:30 pm a day early for the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2016 Finals!

On the way, my teammate Ahmad jokes that I am like Bill Gates running in Parallels on Steve Jobs.  (I use both Apple and Microsoft products, and we debate whether to hide my Apple Watch while at Microsoft Build.  No, I decide, but I will be telling the story of how B.E.S.T. uses Microsoft products to make the world a better place.)

We have a fish and chips lunch at Pier 39 where I go over the PowerPoint presentation with Eric and Ahmad.  I also speak by phone with someone referred by the Utah Attorney General’s office who runs current 360 degree use of force video training programs for the State.  He just returned from a bike ride across the Navajo Nation and wants to meet with us a week from Friday, once we are back from Imagine Cup!

We also stop by the Musée Mécanique, San Francisco’s Antique Penny Arcade, and are inspired by ancestors of modern games and entertainment attractions.

In the evening, we have dinner at an Indian restaurant near Chinatown.  I step outside for an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune that lasts about 20 minutes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Around 4:30 am, I wake up and send follow up information to the reporter.  I also let Bob from EAE know about the interview and he contacts the PR people for the University who also email me to say they plan to do a press release about B.E.S.T. later this week.

Our presentation is pretty much ready visually, but I need to cut about two minutes of material before Thursday to fit the five minute time limit.  Simplify, simplify, simplify!

We switch from the Club Quarters hotel to the official hotel of Imagine Cup, Hilton’s Parc 55 and check in prior to 3:00.  We review the build we will show on Wednesday, and prepare for our 3:30 pm meeting with Shaina Morrison from Microsoft.

Later tonight we will go bowling at Lucky Strike with other teams, who alternately look intimidated by us (probably Eric who is really tall) or act competitive (Team No Sleep) because we will compete in the same category over the next four days.  My roommate is Chase Sadri from Team Localpulse of Santa Margarita Catholic High School.  Chase’s team is building a crowdsourced community improvement platform.

Wish us all luck!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016.

We enjoy a nice breakfast at the hotel before catching Uber to take our equipment to the Microsoft Reactor, an accelerator space purchased by Microsoft in downtown San Francisco.

Shaina Morrison orients us to the day, then starts a live stream of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Microsoft Build, taking place now, almost next door at the Moscone Center.

We then hear a few talks about past competitions and how we might refine our pitches today, and each team has a chance to share a thirty to sixty second version of their pitch with everyone in the room.  We are reminded that Imagine Cup is not a business plan competition but an innovation competition, and we should be passionate about that innovation.  “You’ve already won.  You are here,” they reassure a nervous crowd.  “This is going on your resume!”

We take a quick fresh juice break while watching or listening to Microsoft unveil the latest on the Hololens, which we will all get to try this week, me for a second time, since Microsoft visited Salt Lake a few months ago and I was lucky enough to get a standby ticket.

Satya is back on live stream, talking about conversational canvases, and his plan to add holograms and bots to Skype.

“How do you tell a coherent story?”  Microsoft’s Chief Storytelling Officer talks to us about what it takes to put on an event like Build.  There are 300 people behind the stage, he says, but on stage and on screen it all has to come across as a great story.  He takes engineers at Microsoft and turns them into storytellers who take audiences on a journey.

His second bit of advice after “Tell a story,” is “Have a backup plan,” especially when doing demos.  He says a phone was once dropped on the way to a demo in front of 12,000 people, and there was no backup.  Advice #3:  “Bigger is better.”  It is easier to present in front of 15,000 than five.  He says if you don’t know more about what you are presenting than every other person in the room, you probably should not be presenting.  The best way to not be nervous and look foolish is to be the world expert.  #4:  “Rehearse – Timing.”  If you go over by fifteen minutes on a two or three hour Microsoft keynote, the press gets antsy and thinks it is time to drink.  #5:  “Rehearse – Words.”  Get better at words.  Microsoft uses three columns.  One is slides, one is an outline, and one is key warm, fuzzy sound bites or phrases.  For example, “Conversation is the new UI.”  #6:  “Be wary of dead moments.”  Think about how to do two things at once.  Show and tell at the same time instead of asking the audience to bear switching costs.  #7:  “Have a great opening.”  Like a James Bond movie, capture people’s imagination.  We will show you how to use Azure to break the world landspeed record.  Use emotive phrases.  #8:  “Have a great close.”  It can be the exact same as your opening.  “Tell them what you are going to show them, show them, and then tell them what you showed them.”  “I had a dream to do this.  This is how I did it…  …Thank you for joining me on the journey of my dream.”  #9:  “Have fun!”  Things will go wrong.  Be ready for things to go wrong.  Have some fun. Enjoy it.  Also show your enthusiasm to your audience.  When things do go wrong, have some fun with it.  #10:  “Wear bright orange sneakers.”  Bonus tip:  “Always remember to turn your mic back on.”  Some demos are like walking a high wire, but it can be a lot of fun.

41JTRNDVz6L._SX470_BO1,204,203,200_-1Next up is author Chris Lipp, author of The Startup Pitch: A Proven Formula to Win Funding and our official Imagine Cup funding pitch coach.

He says he spent a year to a year and a half after a failed Silicon Valley pitch analyzing pitches that raised money.  Every successful pitch has the same fomula, he says, and shares it with us.  “Over 90% of the pitches out there start with a problem, the context for value.”

What trends in the industry inform the creation of your technology?  What is it in society or technology that makes you cutting edge?

We take another break and continue to update our pitch.  Chris invites us into a private room together with Team Gun Loc, and gives us private feedback on our pitches.  Then we prepare to move our equipment to the Moscone Center to show Build.

After more teamwork on pitches and risky last minute tweaks to our build, we take our presentation materials to Build 2016 for set up, then return to the Reactor for some of the best lasagna I’ve ever had.  A member of the staff shares a poem that says something about, “You are all winners, and that is why Microsoft is paying for your dinners.”  Next up:  A secret guest that I can’t mention by name until it is done.  Starting soon…


…It’s Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft!  He praises us and the Imagine Cup program, then listens to 90 second pitches by three randomly chosen teams pitch, Team Wild Beast Games (USC), Team Tactile (MIT), and Team RecycleBot (UC Berkeley)!

In the evening, we demo our projects for Build attendees.  One person wants to introduce us to the FBI, another to the people in charge of police training in the UK, a third to investors in Silicon Valley.  It is a good night.

As Shaina gives us instructions for tomorrow, we get an email from Roger Altizer, head of EAE.  He is in town and wants to go over our presentations.  He and Eric join me in Park 55 room 853 and I go through the sixteen slides that remain after some touch cutting.  He suggests ways to merge two of the slides into two others, so we are now at 14 and exactly 5 minutes.  He also suggests some new language, but I am not comfortable adding language I have not tested before on live audiences or one on one at “B.E.S.T. Events.”  Roger and I have both studied Communications in the past, me as an undergrad, he for a Ph.D., so it is as if we share a common “mass media” language.  We value his mentorship.

We run into a few issues uploading the presentation.  All of the photos disappear once in the cloud.  Fortunately, I have the whole thing backed up in another cloud.

Thursday, March 31, 2016.

Competition Day!

We take hotel breakfast to go so we can be at the Reactor by 7:30.  The team leads take turns with the AV guy, who is chaining all of the presentations together.  I have him remove the extra slides, which were tacked on to the end of our final fourteen.  A few font sizes have to be updated to fit the screen.  The clicker is a lot less sensitive than my track pad, so we are less likely to accidentally skip a frame.  I feel ready.

We put up one of the three posters and banners I pre-printed for the competition.  The banner is too long for the table.  A video monitor displays Eric’s gameplay video, and Shahbaz makes sure the Oculus demo is working well in an environment with lots of ambient sound.

Late morning, the competition starts.  World Citizenship is the second set of five Finalists, with Innovation going first and Games last.  B.E.S.T. is the first project the three celebrity judges review.  We’ve read up on their bios and tried to tailor our pitch to themes we know they are passionate about, but that also authentically describe B.E.S.T.  Vivian plays our demo while Scott and Lauren grill us with questions.  The best question comes from Scott, “What is your secret sauce?”  He is really asking what makes B.E.S.T. innovative and not just something that has been 100 times before.  I am so happy I have been pushing us to innovate and not just convert existing training into a new format.

After our five or ten minutes with the judges (officially five, felt like ten), we watch HealthX compete in the other room in the pitch competition.  Ahmad, Ahmad #2, and Daniel take turns delivering lines, and follow the pitch up by saying HealthX will be approved by the FDA and ready for market in four months.

We take a ten minute break, and then World Citizenship pitches begin, with B.E.S.T. first again.  We have issues with blocking on stage, figuring out where to stand amidst some pretty crazy red tape for the camera, and it ends up taking Eric 45 seconds to get through his 20 second intro of the team.  By the time I have the mic, I have 4 minutes and 20 seconds to give 4 minutes and 40 seconds of slides, and know I will either not finish or have to cut three slides.

Somehow it works out, though we have to cut our “strong finish.”  The Q&A goes fine, though I get a bit flustered when the time clock says we have time and the camera people motion that we are done, and I am half way through my last story.  I close as quickly as I can, and we are done.

Then the waiting game begins.  The pre-speech butterfly anxiety I can live with.  It is nervous energy that I can channel productively into a commanding presence on stage.  It is the post-speech anxiety that eats away at me.  Did I say enough?  Did I let the team down?  Did I let Microsoft down?  It is a LONG three hours before the award ceremony, and if Shaina and Randy know something, they can’t show it.  Fortunately, we get to enjoy the last four teams speak, and two of them have issues similar to ours.  I am convinced that RecycleBot has the strongest pitch, followed by perhaps LocalPulse.  Maybe we can still at least win People’s Choice?

I arrive at the award ceremony about an hour early, and pick up a Hololens t-shirt, among other //Build/ swag.  I get a next to front row seat and take up a front row seat with my laptop.  We listen to a company talk about how their game, Age of Ascent, running on Microsoft Azure and programmed in HTML 5, can run an “ultra massively multiplayer” 50,000 person space dogfight in real time.  It is the first time I really see the Cloud as the ultimate game machine.

The award ceremony starts at 5:30 and lasts 30 minutes.  The first award is announced.  “People’s Choice goes to…Gun Loc!”  Dream dashed, but Gun Loc is a deserving winner.  Their product lets gun owners know by SMS text message if their gun is being tampered with when they are not at home.  Gun Loc was built by a team from University of Florida–Gainesville.

“First Place Innovation goes to…  HealthX!”  Ahmad, Ahmad #2, and Daniel stand and receive their $4,000 check.  Could Utah really win more than one award tonight?  Have we missed our chance?

“First Place World Citizenship goes to…  Bolo/VR!  aka B.E.S.T. Police Training Simulator!”


The iceberg of tension melts instantly.  I climb over my laptop and join Eric and Shahbaz on stage, where I want to hug everyone and smile ear to ear while I stand behind a great big $4,000 check.  The amount may not be big, but the symbolic meaning is huge.  We walk behind the stage where I call home to say we won!

“First Place Games category goes to…  Sundown!”  This is a USC game, and is really a pretty fun game.  I played it earlier in the day and was run over by subway cars at least twice.  The team arguably has the best t-shirts, very brightly colored.  The win means the third Utah team, Team Spite who made Spire of the Sullen, did not win, but two out of three (or four counting People’s Choice) is not bad!

The winning teams go behind the stage, where we have a few minutes to prepare to give our pitches all over again after a brief video clip from our demos.  My pitch goes pretty much flawlessly, at least compared to the first time.

We collect glass trophies to go along with our checks after which I am interviewed by a reporter from China who asks for my advice to those who compete in the China Imagine Cup Finals next month.  I say a few words in Chinese, as I spent five months there once teaching English, and pass on some advice about focusing on innovation.  I look forward to meeting their national winner at the International Finals, if we are selected from among the three US finalists to represent the US in an informal International Semifinals.  I guess that makes me an International Semifinalist…

We have a photo session with our checks next to a large block Microsoft logo in the Moscone Center West main hall.  Then Microsoft drives us to a restaurant called Wine & Wall for a steak or mahi dinner and three course dessert.  We celebrate the cameraman’s birthday with a song, Shaina thanks her staff publicly, and tells us about tomorrow.  All of the finalists are invited to a special demo of the Hololens “Destination Mars” exhibit tomorrow morning at 7:45 am!   The winners also get to actually build something in Hololens in a separate 15 minute session.  Can’t wait!

She also announces a special surprise.  She invites us outside table by table to receive certificates as winners and finalists, a mini trophy for everyone who participated as a finalist, and a Microsoft Band fitness tracker.  I can now wear an Apple Watch on my left hand and a Microsoft Band on my right.  I may need two trackers after all of the calories I’ve consumed in the last three days!  We’ve been well fed!

All of this is punctuated by about a hundred likes from friends on Facebook after I post the photo of our team and the check as a cover photo.

On the shuttle, I have a few minutes to meet with Randy Guthrie, who is a major reason why we are here.  He personally invited EAE and probably USC to send in applications.  We talk about his recent ski trip to Park City with his family and a photo of a perfect snowball he threw that made it into Epic Mix’s photo of the day this year.

Going to bed grateful.  Thank you to Microsoft, thank you to EAE, and thank Heavens for what I think has been divine help along the way.  We’ve made a lot of really good decisions along the way.

Can I mention again how great the other finalists are?  It was really nice spending a night with students from USC and not as rivals, and the creative minds from UC Berkeley who came up with Recycle Bot.  I would love to invest in their idea.  I am also a big fan of the Catholic kids from Santa Margarita High School, including my Imagine Cup roommate Chase.  I encourage him to enter LocalPulse into more competitions.  It is a really amazing project that can increase civic engagement wherever it is used.  I may offer to collaborate.

Friday, April 1, 2016.



Before Destination Mars, I am privileged to try out a living room demo of Hololens. As I put on the device, the room fills up with holograms.

A guide shows me how to enlarge a video window mounted on the wall. I then watch an old fashioned turntable record player as a mini zombie runs or stumbles in place on the record.

The next demo allows me to select a T-Rex from a display of objects and drag it anywhere in the room. I then say, “Enlarge!” and it gets really big and growls at me. I use the move feature of the Hololens to pick up the giant dinosaur and set it on the couch.

End of experience! I take off the Hololens and thank my guide.

IMG_9363I then try Destination Mars, an experience co-developed by Microsoft and NASA.  The virtual tour guide is Buzz Aldrin, the setting a one-time lake bed on Mars near a peak about three quarters the height of Mt. Everest.

Where did all that water go?  Earth?  And if it simply evaporated into space, wouldn’t that put a hole in global warming theory?

The exhibit will move to the Kennedy Space Center eventually.

We have an hour or two to walk around Microsoft Build before lunch at Super Duper Burger. (I am really not hungry!!!)

I try to get into the Holographic Academy, a room where you actually get to build something using Hololens, but the last session for the day has already started.

After trying out Microsoft’s “Meditation Room”, I sit in on a half hour presentation in the Seizing Opportunity theater of the Expo floor on issues in implementing Hololens in education.  The big issue is how to have different people wear different Hololenses and see the same object in the same place in the classroom. They talk about how to network the experience with one Hololens as the main “player.” They say player instead of teacher or student because the primary programming environment for Hololens is Unity, a game engine.

Other issues include how to help others who do not have a Hololens follow along, and how to review what has been taught after a class session is over, possibly in the absence of a Hololens.

Next up, we visit Super Duper Burger, a mostly organic restaurant that is to burgers what Chipotle is to the burrito bowl.  A sign says their soft serve ice cream is organic.  But if health is the point of this food, why do they serve donuts?

We head for the Reactor to listen to two Venture Capitalists, who really interest me but apparently lose the attention of a few of the other finalists.  One asks to see a video of B.E.S.T. and says he’ll be in touch.  Eric talks to the other, from Rothenberg Ventures, and collects a card for the team.

IMG_9409Shaina lets us know we have our first post-win press.  PC Mag has a write up on all four winning teams online, with a headline that talks specifically about B.E.S.T.

Shaina also leads us in an after action review, asking us to write down the best advice we received this week, the best feedback from Build attendees, elements of a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), and three next steps, which we are to discuss as teams.  I come up with about seven off the top of my head. We will be busier than ever, and like it!

Our final official stop for the day is Jillian’s, a pool hall right next to the Metreon featuring mango lemonade and lots of unhealthy but tasty appetizers.  It is basically a goodbye party.  On the way, my team stops in the park, where we talk about the future of B.E.S.T. and call up Charlie.  He has done so much work behind the scenes, and is excited to work with us on next steps and to prepare B.E.S.T. to show to investors.

Next Week:  Submit to World Semifinals!  Not that we are not already on top of the world.