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

Pentagon's nationwide DARPA Network Challenge tests social networking.

ByABC News
December 4, 2009, 3:46 PM

Dec. 5, 2009— -- It almost sounds like it's too much fun to have been hatched by the military: Find 10 giant, red balloons hidden somewhere in the U.S. and you could win $40k?

But it's true. Today the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, "launched" 10 eight-foot-wide red balloons in a nationwide high tech treasure hunt.

Open to anyone in the country, the DARPA Network challenge is designed to explore social networks and Internet communication. Finding balloons will require players to build and motivate nationwide networks of people to join the hunt.

The balloons, which will be visible only during daylight hours, are "moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States," DARPA explains on its Web site. The agency added that the balloons will visible and accessible from nearby roads.

The first person or team to send in the correct geographic coordinates for all ten balloons will pocket the $40,000 prize. Only those who have registered can submit locations and receive the prize, but they are free to divide the money however they'd like.

As of Friday, at least 2,000 people had registered for the contest and DARPA said the number continues to grow.

"We're learning a lot about how social networks form – how people band together to solve problems. But relatively less is known about how those networks mobilize rapidly and what happens when trust relationships are crucial," said Peter Lee, director of DARPA's Transformational Convergence Technology Office.

Until today, the contest has lived only online, where players have launched Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, wikis, Web sites, mobile device applications and more to promote their team and recruit members.

But now that the balloons are deployed, the real fun starts. Teams across the country are fielding and sharing messages, trying to separate accurate information from false leads.

"It's a race and money is involved. That injects a little twist. People now have an incentive to hold secrets," Lee said, adding that as players recruit other participants and solicit information they have to gauge whether or not they are legitimate.

Timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the launch of ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, which eventually grew into the Internet, Lee said the contest was also intended to celebrate a crucial milestone in Internet history.

On Dec. 5, 1969, DARPA succeeded in linking the first four nodes of the network that ultimately expanded to sustain millions of computers and modern-day social networks.