What's With the Red Balloons? Military Offers $40k in Contest

After making his imprint online, he published a press release and asked friends and family to send messages about his project far and wide. To entice people to collaborate, he announced that the prize money would be split evenly among the people who submit winning coordinates.

Business School Tries to Active Alumni Network

Though his Facebook page counts just 20 people among its members, he believes the actual network of those aware of his team could be much larger and could still come through with valuable information starting Saturday.

"I'm not quite sure what to expect. It's basically a math problem – the more people in our network, the more the chance for success," he said.

Other teams are incentivizing participants with commitments to charity.

If it wins, Project Red Balloon, a balloon search team organized by graduate students and professors at Harvard Business School, promises to donate the $40k to AIDS research and awareness.

"We wanted to test the ability of 2,000 students and faculty on the Harvard Business School campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts to dig into their e-mail, their Facebook, and their Twitter networks to mobilize toward a common goal," MBA student Bradley Lautenbach said in an e-mail.

Through any means possible, he said their team is trying to engage the entire HBS community of current students and alumni across the country. He estimates that they've already reached 50,000 to 100,000 people in nearly every state in the continental U.S.

iPhone App Company Launches 'Army of Eyes'

"It's really a case of 'get out the eyes,'" he said. "We need as many people as possible, in as many places as possible, to be aware of what's happening on Saturday."

Hopefully, if someone sees a balloon they'll remember Project Red Balloon and report its location to them. Lautenbach said each person who submits a winning coordinate has the option to keep $1,000, but they hope each participant will choose to donate the money to charity.

For some tech professionals, the challenge is an opportunity to hone their skills and get their name out.

Mutual Mobile, an Austin, Tex,-based mobile applications development company, launched an iPhone application, "Army of Eyes," that makes it easy for iPhone users to snap a geo-coded picture of any red balloons they spot.

Mickey Ristroph, co-founder of the company, who previously competed in DARPA competitions, said, "This kind of challenge makes the most sense on mobile devices."

People will be on the road, or on foot, when they spot the balloons, he said. It's easier for potential participants to submit information immediately via smart phone than wait to go home and sit at their laptops.

Their incentive? To win $2,500 if they are the first to submit an accurate location. (Ristroph said Mutual Mobile won't keep any of the winnings.)

Having successfully developed and launched dozens of iPhone applications previously, he said his company was well-positioned to get "Army of Eyes" into the App store and into the public awareness. The application went live Wednesday and so far has been downloaded about 8,000 times.

Artist Will Create 30-Foot Balloon Cupcake if He Wins

For still other players, it's all about the fun.

Larry Moss, a professional artist who creates balloon sculptures, said he knew he had to join the competition the day it was announced.

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