Published on August 23, 2007
Dare to dream" - those are the three words that drove 3KC Returns, a group of students from Kasetsart and Chulalongkorn universities, to victory in the software-design category of the Imagine Cup 2007 in South Korea last week.
The team's software application to help the illiterate improve their reading, writing and listening skills won them a cheque for US$25,000 (Bt862,500) from Microsoft in the annual global student competition.
Called "LiveBook!", the program helps people understand the text in books through a computer-generated voice and pictures.
The 3KC Returns members were among 334 students in 112 teams from 59 countries competing in nine categories at the competition.
The team members are Prachaya Phaisanwiphatpong, Jatupon Sukkasem and Pathompol Saeng-Uraiporn from Kasetsart and Vasan Chienmaneetaveesin from Chulalongkorn. All of them are computer-engineering students.
"I was always thinking that I have to be the one who takes the trophy," says Jatupon. "I dared to dream of winning first place ever since this project started."
He says the inspiration for their software came when he saw a little girl staring at a book on a shelf. She seemed to want to read it, but was too young to understand all the words in it.
"I asked myself, 'Why not create something that lets little kids read books without knowing a word?'"
The team spent seven months developing this software application and created more than 10 projects for the competition, but they decided to present only LiveBook.
"We found that, according to Unesco's figures, there are more than 870 million people around the world who can't read, and we thought this was our opportunity to help them by developing this software," says Prachaya.
LiveBook adopts optical-character-recognition technology to convert scanned documents into text, and works with text-to-speech technology to convert the text into speech.
People can use the program by connecting to the Internet and using a webcam to capture the text. The software will convert the document image into text and then into audible speech.
The software also provides pictures to enhance understanding. If you're reading a Harry Potter book, it will show a picture of the young wizard.
The members of 3KC Returns had similar childhood interests.
"When I was young I played computer games every day," says Vasan. "Then I thought, 'Why not design and create my own computer game?' I started searching out information about writing software and learning by myself back in Prathom 5."
Vasan, Prachaya and Pathompol all studied at the Bang Rak campus of Assumption College. They started writing software in secondary school and won gold medals for Thailand in the Computer Olympics between 2002 and 2004.
"If I'm not sleeping I'm in front of a computer," says Pathompol, who is passionate about writing programs to control children's toys like Lego.
Pathompol received training at a Lego camp while in Mathayom 2, and continued learning by taking part in Lego competitions around Asia. He won first prize in Singapore.
Prachaya loves to play robot games, particularly fighting games. He has created one called "War of Oracle", and won first prize in a competition at the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre.
He also set up the website SiamEarth.com, which adopts Google Earth technology to let visitors search for information about Thailand and upload pictures and information.
Prachaya plans to set up his own software firm after graduating, but with a focus on creating applications useful in daily life rather than just computer games. Jatupon prefers to focus on creating websites.
"I started to improve my skills through curiosity. After searching out documents about Web writing, I learned to do it by myself. No one taught me," he says.
Jatupon studied at Chiang Mai University demonstration school. After he won a contest for creating websites, so many businesspeople hired him that he was making more than Bt10,000 a month when he was only 15.
Nowadays he and his colleagues are planning a site with news reports contributed directly by the public. They've already come up with a prototype.
"The only thing that makes you different from others is daring to dream and make it real," says Jatupon. "Whether you win or fail, it's just a new experience for your life."
The next stop for 3KC Returns is a two-week programme called the Imagine Cup Innovation Accelerator in the United States, organised by Microsoft. There they will be given technical training and business coaching to develop their innovative ideas into actual businesses.