Last Saturday, Lisa, Sam, and I drove to Katy Park on a cold, but clear morning to log the penultimate game of the soccer season. We entered the park from Morton Ranch Road and drove past all the small-sided fields towards Field 14. We dodged the usual number of errant soccer balls bouncing across the road, slowed to let pack-horse parents pulling coolers and carrying foldable chairs cross in front of us, and noticed how funny it was to see soccer players in shorts, wearing mittens and knit caps.
We also noticed this tethered next to Park Road, floating high enough to see from any point in the park.
Brilliant idea, we thought. A team would never get lost or whine that they couldn't find the field if they brought this enormous red balloon to every game and floated at the spot where they needed to meet for the pre-game warm-up. We wondered where we could get one.
It turns out that the reason the balloon was so visible was that it was eight-feet in diameter. Too big, even for a soccer-mom van to stow. How do I know how big it was, and how can I guess I probably couldn't afford it for the team?
The balloon was part of the annual DARPA Network Challenge.
What is DARPA?
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). The Agency manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for DoD and pursues research and technology where both risk and payoff are very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions.
What is the DARPA Network Challenge?
The DARPA Network Challenge is a competition that will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems. The Network Challenge winner will be the first individual to submit the locations of 10 8-foot balloons moored at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads.
Unbelievably, a team from MIT edged out 4,300 other teams, found all ten balloons in less than nine hours, and won the $40,000 prize. You can read about their strategy here. When you consider ten balloons hidden somewhere in the United States, eight feet in diameter doesn't seem all that big any more.
If only we had know about the contest. If only we had figured out what we were looking at. If only we had accidentally spotted the other nine balloons spread out across the country. Oh well, if wishes were horses beggars would ride.