Star Challenge team claims bronze medal in Singapore

ECE News

Charlie Johnson, ECE Illinois

Story Highlights

  • The Illinois Star Challenge team placed third of 56 teams in the Star Challenge, a multi-media retrieval competition held in Singapore.
  • The team is led by Prof. Thomas Huang and Prof. Mark Hasegawa-Johnson.
  • Illinois was the only American team of the five finalists who traveled to Singapore.

For the Illinois Star Challenge team, crossing the Pacific Ocean was the easy part.

The team, made up of ECE graduate students and led by Professors Thomas S Huang and Mark Hasegawa-Johnson, took third in the Star Challenge, a multimedia retrieval competition comprising over 50 teams from around the globe. The original 56 teams, representing 17 different countries, were pared down to five finalists, including the Illinois team, who were invited to travel to Singapore for the grand finals, held October 23. Of the final five teams, only the Illinois team was from United States.  The other teams hailed from Japan, China, France, and Singapore. The team from Singapore came out on top, winning the grand prize.

Illinois students who took part in the Star Challenge competition included (left to right) Jui-Ting Huang, Dennis Lin, Xi Zhou, Yuxiao Hu, Xiaodan Zhuang, and Zhen Li.
Illinois students who took part in the Star Challenge competition included (left to right) Jui-Ting Huang, Dennis Lin, Xi Zhou, Yuxiao Hu, Xiaodan Zhuang, and Zhen Li.

For the competition, each team created a search algorithm capable of finding specific portions of audio or video in a larger multimedia database, much like search engines can find specific words or phrases in a larger body of text. The challenge was sponsored by The Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR), a national research laboratory in Singapore. It was held as part of Fusion Fest, the opening ceremony for Fusionopolis, A*STAR’s newest research and development facility which will house a variety of research organizations and high tech companies, as well as a research center run by the University of Illinois.

Thomas S. Huang
Thomas S. Huang

Before the team made the 9,400-mile trip Singapore, a lot of work had to be done in Urbana-Champaign. Searching for audio and video segments is far more complex than searching for text, so the team divided the competition into three components: audio, video, and combined audio and video. They then set to work trying to develop the best search algorithm for each. The team was provided with training data to test their search engines before each elimination round.

“You try to discover what are the characteristics of each category, and then you try and recognize those in the database,” said Huang.

The first elimination round, which pared the 56 teams down to 8, required the team to search for specific words, sounds, and phrases in the challenge database. The second round, which trimmed the field from 8 to 7, required the team’s search engine to detect different images or segments of video that fit a specific category. For example, if the team searched for a corporate logo, segments of video featuring logos of various companies would be collected by the search engine. The third and final elimination round was a combined audio and video search, which cut the field of seven to the competition’s final five.

“We are very proud to be the only American team left. I talked to one of my friends, and he said, whatever you do, beat the French,” said Huang.

Mark Hasegawa-Johnson
Mark Hasegawa-Johnson

As if surviving elimination from a field of 56 wasn’t difficult enough, the organizers of the competition decided to add one more element. The grand finals included a series of puzzles that must be completed before each search task can begin. The puzzles were set up and solved in Second Life, an online virtual world where avatars resembling humans can conduct various tasks, like the puzzles. Teams who complete the tasks more quickly, will receive extra time to aid them in their searching.

"The Second Life puzzles tripped us up," said Hasegawa-Johnson. "The Japanese team, from NII, had one person on stage to manage audio queries, one person to manage video queries, and one person whose sole responsibility was completion of Second Life puzzles. On our team, by contrast, every person on stage was managing query retrieval software full time, so we had nobody with hands free to play Second Life."

Nevertheless, after the months of hard work, several elimination rounds, and the best competition the world could throw at them, the Illinois Star Challenge Team brought home with the bronze medal to recognize their efforts and accomplishments.

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