CodeInvader game warms up students for ACM World Finals

SAN ANTONIO — Sean Henderson admits his team only started using Java a day before the preliminary programming contest began, but as other teams also said, the first day of competition is mostly about having fun.

Henderson, a third year computer science student at the University of Toronto, and his other teammates, Henry Wong, a fourth year computer engineering student, and Robert Barrington Leigh, a third year math and physics student, were among 83 universities who participated in Tuesday’s International Collegiate Programming Contest Java challenge here at the ACM-ICPC 2006 World Finals. Other Canadian teams include Simon Fraser University, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia and last year’s winner, University of Waterloo.

After practice sessions on Monday, teams converged on La Villita Assembly Building here Tuesday morning to test their Java language programming skills in the form of a game called CodeInvaders. Each three-member team is given three hours to write a MySpaceShip Java class that represents a space ship. Teams, which share one computer, can look at each other’s space ships during the challenge but can’t see the lines of code their competitors are writing.

The team that collects the most points wins. This is done by collecting energy and bringing it back to the home planet, by shooting and hitting opponent ships and by the amount of energy remaining in their ships at the end of the match. Contestants won’t find out who the winner is until Tuesday’s dinner when teams’ ships are pitted against one another in an all-out galactic battle played out on the dome ceiling of the Institute of Texan Cultures.

The Java contest, which is voluntary, is a prelude to Wednesday’s big showdown in which teams will be required to solve eight to 10 problems correctly in five hours. The winners — the first four get gold, the next four get silver and the following four get bronze — will be announced at an award ceremony on Wednesday evening after the 11 judges tally the final scores.

Now in its 30 year, the ACM World Finals, which originated at a competition held at Texas A&M in 1970 and later held its first finals at the ACM Computer Science Conference in 1977, will see 83 world finalist teams compete to be the best of six continents. In previous years, the contest has been held in Shanghai (2005) and Prague (2004). As for the next venue, city hopefuls have their bids in now much like the process for the Olympics, said the contest’s executive director, William (Bill) Poucher.

“We’re laying out next six to eight years,” said Poucher, adding that potential bidders include Rio, Stockholm, Hawaii and even an ocean liner. “We want to show off the culture and do it in the best possible way.

“We want to do it in a way that we can say we’re part of a world that wants to be problem solvers, that wants to celebrate the diversity of human life.”

The world finalists are winners of regional contests that took place last fall, representing 1,733 universities from 84 countries. Participation in the regionals increased this year by 40 per cent from 4,109 to 5,606 teams at 183 sites worldwide with hundreds of teams turned away because of lack of space.

U of T, for example, beat out the University of Michigan and Purdue University to make it to ACM. Henderson said the U of T team practices on Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons. While they are competing against each other in the finals, U of T regularly meets online with other teams like UBC and University of Waterloo to work on old problems.

“We use old contests and work together with other Canadian teams,” said Henderson. “We meet online and get the link to where the problems are.”

Students around the globe can access a portal where they can view and work on old contest problems that are reviewed and given feedback by judges.

While teams have four months to prepare for the finals, because the regionals start just one month after classes begin, it doesn’t give teams much time, said Nhan Nguyen, a third year computer science student at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby,


“We practice three times a week before the regionals and two times a week for five hours before the world finals,” said Nguyen. Nguyen’s other two team members are Simon Lo, a fifth year math and computer science student, who solved 800 problems online in 10 months and nine out of 10 problems at the regionals, and Aaron Chan, a third year computer science student. Chan, who has strong Java skills, will be doing most of the work in Tuesday’s challenge, said Nguyen.

Closer to the finals, Henderson said U of T’s teams will hold a simulated competition.

This year’s finals mark the first time the contest has come back to Texas since 1991. Baylor University, which is hosting the event, won the contest in 1982 and has served as the ACM headquarters since 1989. On Monday’s opening ceremonies, the original four members of the 1982 champions, Keith Hall, Pat Keane, Jennifer Webb and Terry Talley joined their coach and now contest director Don Gaitros on stage for an award commemorating their victory.

IBM, which has been a sponsor of the event since 1997 (Microsoft was also a previous sponsor), on Monday at the opening ceremonies announced it is extending its sponsorship commitment until 2012.

ACM wraps up on Wednesday.

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