Among the new digital tools and applications that students will be using on college campuses this fall are a mysterious, mobile-phone-based game of espionage; an online communal ranking system that can help in group decision-making; a first-of-its-kind MP3 visualizer that uses song lyrics to dynamically generate music videos; an online and mobile-phone-based community that lets members record and collaborate on rap music; and an interactive, advice-based wiki for helping students discuss difficult subjects.

And what’s most remarkable about these applications is they’re all student-created.

Network solutions provider Cisco Systems and mtvU, a television and internet network just for college students, have tapped these five projects as winners of its annual Digital Incubator grants, which aims to mobilize a new generation of technology innovators by offering students up to $250,000 in grants and a national platform for their digital creations.

Chuck Fishman, manager of media and entertainment for Cisco, says the program’s goal is to identify new technologies and support innovative student programs that help the company learn how customers are using the web to create digital media.

“There is a transition under way driven by ubiquitous digital content, broadband, video, and a multiplicity of devices. Consumers are driving innovation, and students are at the forefront of that innovation,” Fishman said. “We think we can learn a lot from these pilot programs.”

School leaders can learn from these projects, too, as they provide a snapshot of students’ interests and the ways they use technology to communicate, collaborate, solve problems, and network with their peers.

The five winning projects launched Sept. 5 on the Digital Incubator web site. They are:

  • RapHappy. Created by students from New York University, this new online and mobile-phone-based hip-hop community enables members to easily record, collaborate on, search, and listen to freestyle or written raps, without any need for software or file uploading. RapHappy can be used as a self-promotion tool for aspiring musicians, a communication tool for recording private audio messages for friends, or simply as an artistic medium. Members can collaborate with other artists, rate and comment on submissions, and participate in online “battles” for a chance to collect cash and other prizes.

  • Osiris. From students at Brown University comes this first-of-its-kind music visualizer that uses song lyrics to dynamically generate music videos, using images pulled from Flickr and a user’s own hard drive. This free application gives users a whole new way to enjoy their music, its creators say, using each song’s lyrical narrative to tell a visual story.

  • Casablanca. This free online and mobile-phone-based party game from students at New York University combines elements of social networking, espionage, and alternative-reality gaming. Two teams square off, with members messaging each other online and off, making friends and forming alliances as they vie for control of a virtual city. Players begin with connections to four other people–whom they’ve never met–and use these contacts to create a social network that grows as the game unfolds. Members of the Resistance are trying to liberate the city by finding each other and organizing networks to identify the Occupation agents hidden in their midst, while the Occupation must infiltrate and undermine the Resistance networks. The game is played online, through text messaging and eMail.

  • Selectricity. The brainchild of students at MIT, this online communal ranking technology helps users make group decisions democratically. Using a drag-and-drop mechanism, users rank choices in order of preference, and the Selectricity application generates a winner that is most acceptable to the group as a whole. Anyone can set up a Selectricity question in under 30 seconds and tap their friends to help settle daily dilemmas such as, “Which restaurant should we eat at tonight?” “What bar does everybody most want to go to?” and, “Who are the best indie rock bands out right now?”

  • How Do I Say This? Building on a breakout pilot year, this award-winning site from last year has re-launched better than ever. Created by UCLA students, the site is an interactive, web-based advice wiki, where users help script and create video messages for people with problems that have left them at a loss for words. A new topic is selected every month, and members weigh in with advice and suggestions in the form of user-generated videos, illustrations, photos, prose, poetry, and cartoons. The feedback accumulates and inspires a final video, which is created by the student-led production team, which can be sent to friends from the site (anonymously or not). Past episodes have addressed quandaries such as a user wanting to tell a friend he’s a terrible actor, a smitten student with a Valentine’s Day crush, and an ex still in love with an old flame. HowDoISayThis.com was so successful last year that it’s been turned into an mtvU series for this fall.

    “One new trend noticed with the 2007 teams is that they have all creatively thought about ways to make their projects ubiquitous across the web, on mobile platforms,” Fishman said. “The projects are very viral and are easily shared with friends. And that’s because you can embed the student services on most web pages. Most of the teams have created widgets for their projects.”

    For example, he said, students who record a rap with their friends through RapHappy can embed the rap on a friend’s MySpace page using the RapHappy widget; the same goes for the collaborative voting tool, Selectricty–users can create a poll on any topic and embed it on any web page for their friends and colleagues to reply with their vote, and they can even vote via cell phone.

    “Another great thing about this year’s winners is that they are changing the nature of traditional linear TV programming,” Fishman added. “For instance, UCLA’s ‘How Do I Say This’ uses the power of community to come up with new program installments; the socially-oriented program helps people address important issues in their lives with feedback from the web audience.”

    Each of this year’s Digital Incubator teams has received upwards of $30,000 in funding from mtvU and Cisco to get their projects off the ground. The teams also have submitted detailed business plans and are in the process of competing for a supplemental grant of up to $100,000.

    The field will be narrowed to two in the coming weeks, and the finalists will be invited to pitch their projects and business plans to senior executives from MTV and Cisco. The $100,000 grant winner will be selected and announced in mid-October.

    Links:

    Cisco Systems

    mtvU

    Digital Incubator web site