Student Innovation Contest

Welcome to the seventh annual UIST Student Innovation Contest (SIC) website!

TL;DR : Help blur the lines between art and engineering by creating tools for robotic storytelling! Win fabulous prizes! Sign up at by August 31.

As always, the UIST Student Innovation Contest challenges student teams to create intriguing interfaces using novel hardware kits that we provide. It’s your chance to amaze us with your innovations! Contestants will demo their creations during the demo reception at the conference, and the winners will be announced at the banquet. A jury of UIST celebrities will select two winners in the "best software innovation" and "best hardware innovation" categories. Conference attendees will also get a chance to vote for their favorite teams in the "people's choice" category.

Important dates

  • student contest registration deadline for all teams : August 31
  • organizers evaluate submissions and select accepted teams : September 1-3
  • notification of team selection sent out : September 3
  • conference registration deadline for accepted teams: September 10
  • hardware kits shipped to accepted teams (as soon as possible after one team member is registered to the conference) : September 10-September 15
  • contest development period with animatronics hardware : September 15 - November 10
  • teams demo at contest reception during UIST conference : November 10


For 2015, the UIST Student Innovation Contest takes on a cause. Schools and museums are starting to offer experimental Animatronics classes where kids build furry robotic animals and use them to tell amazing stories. These courses blur traditional lines - between art and engineering, between the virtual and physical worlds - all while demonstrating the universality of creativity across disciplines. Everybody learns how to write stories, build mechanisms, program motions, provide voice performances, etc. In this way, kids see how it all works together, and it has a way of inspiring kids to see new career possibilities.

One challenge for these courses has been the lack of good software tools. Professional animatronics authoring and show control packages have considerable cost and unnecessary complexity. Standard mechanical design tools are similarly problematic. For these classes to grow beyond a small number of well-funded, expert instructors, we need easy-to-use, open source software. Our contest partners for this year are teachers deploying animatronics in their classrooms right now, who want to see software and hardware innovations to broaden the stories their high schoolers can tell.

Each team will receive a kit of parts including servo motors, cables, controller, power supply, and a stage puppet to animate. Using these parts, teams will be able to build their own animatronic characters to demonstrate the tools they create. We will also be providing an SDK that demonstrates how to talk to the controller using a common file format. All teams will be required to open source their efforts, and will be encouraged to build on each other’s work.

The simplest animatronics shows consist of one servo and one audio track: the servo moves a character in time to the speech. Complexity increases as more servos and more audio tracks are added, allowing multiple characters to interact. But how are the characters’ movements created? For example, could puppet motions be authored by demonstration using a Kinect or by moving the puppets directly? How is the audio scripted? Perhaps a high-level storyboarding tool, with actions and voice tracks attached to boards, could help. And how do things get more complicated when audience interaction is involved, creating non-linear stories and integrating sensors? How do we best support multiple characters interacting with each other? "Macros" for animatronics could be implemented, for example to ensure that characters display a "breathing" animation at all times that they aren't specifically programmed to do something else. Programming is within reach of today's high school students, but creating UIs for animatronics storytelling can support more complex narratives, and there are scores of possibilities for new UIs!

On the hardware side, animatronic puppets are, at their heart, mechanical! Their skeletons are built from standard-size servos and (often) aluminum, but the customization possibilities are infinite. 3D printing or laser cutting can create unique character parts, like snap-on eyes or arms. They can also help define the structure of the animatronics skeleton: could there be a tool for drawing desired motions and calculating the 3D printed parts and servos needed to make them? Or a tool to match a puppet body to a set of servos and parts that could make its motion look natural? What sorts of hardware components could facilitate emotional displays in puppets; can we create "emotion kits" for sadness, happiness, or anger?

We can’t wait to see your exciting innovations. Please watch the video below for more inspiration!


There are a few changes in this year's student contest registration process, please read carefully to make sure you earn a chance to participate:

  • write a 100-word description of your idea
  • prepare a link to a picture, drawing, storyboard, or sketch of your demo idea
  • register for the UIST contest by fulling out the following form by August 31:
  • await notification and further instructions. The organizers will evaluate all submissions and select 30 teams based on the criteria in the contest rules section. Your team will be notified of our decision via email.
  • for accepted teams, one of your team members MUST register for the UIST conference and pay the registration fee by August 20 (or inform us that you have been accepted as a student volunteer)
  • once we've confirmed your UIST conference registration, we will ship you the animatronics kit for development


  • pre-selection criteria: organizers will select a maximum of 30 teams, judging your demo descriptions and sketches by the following criteria: complexity of idea, time and resources required to build, appropriateness for high school animatronics users, creativity of idea, and usefulness of idea.
  • team size: the minimum team size is 1, the maximum is 4
  • team composition: an individual student cannot be a part of multiple teams
  • eligibility requirement: you MUST be a student to participate in this contest. Students of all levels (high school, bachelor's, master's, PhD) are encouraged to participate. International students are welcome.
  • registration requirement: you must register for the contest and submit your idea and image link. If your team is accepted, at least one of your team members MUST register for the conference (or be accepted as a student volunteer). This is for three reasons: 1) you have to demo your idea, 2) you have to claim your prizes, and 3) UIST is an awesome conference!
  • demo ideas: during the contest voting period, teams will be allowed to demo one idea. Different demos of the same idea are permitted.
  • demo code: due to the nature of this year's prompt (helping bring more users to animatronics), we are requiring for the first time that the code you create be open source. The organizers will create a github organization where all teams will be expected to post their code (don’t worry, we will not judge you on your code!). Teams will not be eligible to receive prizes if they have not uploaded their code to the github organization before the winners are announced.
  • demo safety: while servos are not, in and of themselves, dangerous, when combined with the aluminum there may be pinching hazards. Please be careful!
  • hardware provided: each team will receive 2 large servos and 1 small servo, as well as a puppet. They will additionally receive a servo controller board, servo extenders, and a power supplies.
  • other items provided : we will be providing high-quality 3D models of servos to allow teams to create hardware innovations, and we will also provide software libraries for synchronization and control of the puppets. These libraries will be in cross-platform languages, i.e., Java and Arduino.
  • hardware modifications: teams are allowed to modify the hardware as they see fit, so long as it's documented for future users.
  • additional equipment: teams must bring supporting computers and hardware to run their demos, including the hardware shipped by the contest organizers. No equipment will be handed out at UIST.
  • powering your demos at the contest: a US power strip will be provided for each team at their demo table. However, we recommend that you bring your own regional power strip with the appropriate US adapter to connect all your hardware through your own strip with a single adapter.
  • WiFi availability: WiFi in the conference hall will likely be slow, however teams are welcome to use WiFi as a part of their demos. We recommend having a Plan B in case WiFi is too slow in the conference center.
  • questions: if you have any questions about the contest rules, please contact the contest chairs.


Innovation comes in many forms, and the UIST community prides itself on both its hardware and its software. Thus, we've decided to award first and second prize in the categories below:

  • best hardware innovation
  • best software innovation
  • people's choice

The "Best Hardware Innovation" and "Best Software Innovation" category winners will be selected by the judges. The third category ("People's Choice") will be decided by the UIST conference attendees votes for their favorite project. As mentioned above, NO TEAM WILL RECEIVE ANY AWARDS BEFORE THEY UPLOAD THEIR CODE TO GITHUB. Open source code is a requirement of this year's contest, and all code will be uploaded to our github organization : .

We reserve the right to change the awards structure based on any factors, including but not limited to the number of teams participating.


Registration and Eligibility

Q: I am not a student, can I still participate? A: Unfortunately, no. The contest is limited to students at all levels (High School, Bachelor's, Master's, and PhD).

Q: I'm in high school, can I participate in the contest? A: All students are welcome. However, you will have to be old enough (at least 18 years old) and able to travel to the UIST Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Q: I'm an international student, can I participate in the contest? A: Yes. International students at all levels are encouraged to participate. You will be responsible for your own travel and arrangements.

Q: Are postdocs eligible to participate in the contest? A: Unfortunately, no. Postdocs are expected to pay the full registration rate at the UIST conference and thus are not considered students. To maintain fairness among all teams, this means they are not eligible to participate.

Q: What happens if I wish to withdraw from the contest? A: Teams are welcome to withdraw. Please email the contest chairs at least 2 weeks before the conference. Keep in mind you might be asked to return the hardware provided. If you are seeking conference registration reimbursement, your reimbursement will not be processed until you have returned the hardware kit.


Q: How many teams will be selected to participate in the contest? A: Based on space and power limitations at the venue, we will be selecting a maximum of 30 teams. We reserve the right to change this number based on a number of factors (including number of teams registered, ideas submitted, team composition, etc.).

Q: Is there a waiting list for team selection? A: If accepted teams decide to withdraw or do not register for the conference within a week of selection notification, additional teams may be invited to participate. We will only contact additional teams if spots opens up.

Q: Can one person be a member of multiple teams? A: Unfortunately, no. Please decide to be part of one team for the contest. We also encourage students at the same institution to form full groups of 4 students, instead of smaller teams.

Q: Can teams be composed of students from different schools? A: Yes, definitely. Simply enter the school name of your team captain at the top of the registration form. Then, enter the school names for your other members in the section for each additional member.

Q: Can student members be removed or added from teams after the registration deadline? A: Yes, we are allowing for student members to be added or removed up until 2 weeks before the contest. The team captain or student registered for the conference cannot withdraw, otherwise the team will forfeit their participation. Email the contest organizers as soon as possible to make any changes.

Demo Ideas

Q: Can I publish a paper on what I come up with? A: Yes.

Q: Do I own the intellectual property (IP)? A: You own the rights to what you develop, however you must open-source it to be eligible for prizes.

Q: Does my team have to open source our contest entry? A: Yes. The purpose of this contest is to develop tools for high schoolers to use in creating puppet shows, and the tools are no good if they can’t use them afterwards!

Q: Will I be able to demo my idea on my own computer? A: Yes. In fact, it is mandatory, since we will not provide any equipment at the conference.

Q: Can other people help me develop this code? A: It is permissible to get external help for bugs and other issues. People external to the team cannot contribute large pieces of code (or ideas).

Q: Can my adviser help? A: Ideas can be discussed with advisers, but core ideas should come from the team members.

Servo and Puppet Hardware

Q: Can teams purchase additional puppets or servos for the demo? A: Absolutely! We can only provide one puppet and three servos per team, but you may add whatever you like to help with your demo.

Q: Do I get to keep the puppets after the contest? A: Yes!

Q: Are we allowed to develop our demos in languages other than the ones used in the provided examples? A: You are welcome to write your own ports for different languages and develop your demos in any language, however we cannot provide any technical support, and we highly recommend using Java or Arduino as they are easy cross-platform languages for high school animatronics students to learn!

Q: Can we start developing our idea before the hardware arrives? A: Yes! You can start as soon as you’d like. We’ll try to provide the 3D models and control software at the time of team notifications so you can get started.

Travel Arrangements and Grants

Q: Is it possible to receive funding for travel and registration? A: Unfortunately, we don’t have funding for that this year.

Q: I will need a visa to attend UIST. Can you provide a visa invitation letter? A: Contest organizers won't be able to help with visas. There is a section at the bottom of the registration page that details how you can request a visa support letter directly from ACM. Please visit:


Q: How will you stop people from voting multiple times for "People's Choice"? A: We encourage you to interact with conference attendees to show off your projects and ask them to vote for you. Student volunteers will be monitoring the voting stations.

Q: What if only a few teams enter? A: We reserve the right to change the rules at any time. If a small number of people were to enter, we are likely to modify the award structure.


Q: What if something happens the contest chairs did not foresee? A: We reserve the right to change the rules at any time. We will inform all registered contestants of any changes.


Many thanks to Rane Johnson-Stempson and the others at Microsoft, as well as Ben Leduc-Mills and SparkFun for providing funding and contest hardware. This contest would not be possible without the tireless efforts of Ginger Alford and Paul Dietz, and their devoted students Pooja Muddasani, Courtney Owen, and Jared Cline!


The UIST 2015 Student Innovation Contest is being organized and co-chaired by:

Valkyrie Savage (UC Berkeley, USA)

Stefanie Mueller (Hasso Plattner Institute, Germany)