Student-created avatars may soon be on lots of phones—and possibly mean big bucks for the artists—thanks to a new contest announced here by Smith Micro Software Inc., whose tech center is in Pittsburgh.

“I believe at some point in time we’ll be the one to create a new millionaire artist,” said CEO William M. Smith, Jr.

Smith, who attended Grove City College, described the company’s Avatar Challenge as a way to expose Pittsburgh student talent to the world and allow their creations to be seen potentially by millions of people, even before they graduate.

Although the contest is open to high schools and higher education institutions across the country, and Smith Micro headquarters is in California, the wealth of student talent in the region inspired Smith to put his company’s R&D center here in 2010. That’s also why he came back to Pittsburgh to announce this competition, he said.

Schools can apply to get Smith Micro’s Anime Studio animation software so their students can create avatars for Sprint’s visual voicemail program, which uses Smith’s new AniMates mobile messaging app to add motion and backgrounds to voicemail. Smith Micro will select a winning entry each month to be sold in Sprint online stores.

The contest is open Aug. 1-Oct. 31, and rewards winners with a $2,000 scholarship and pro versions of the company’s animation software (Anime Studio, Poser, Manga Studio and Motion Artist) and a share of the profits from the sale of their character.

“We are very hopeful that this catches on,” Smith says of the contest. “We expect some really cool things to come out of this.”

One of those cool things will be one more way to increase opportunities for education in STEAM subjects (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) that are so crucial for kids entering the workforce soon.

Of course, he said, Smith Micro is also tapping into a new market. Since emoticons were invented in Pittsburgh, they have taken off and morphed into stickers, with sticker companies valued in the billions today. That includes Whatsapp, which was sold to Facebook for $19 billion—just a taste, he said, of what animation might do for this tech segment.

Hans Westman, academic chair for game art & design and media arts & animation at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, called the contest “a great opportunity for the schools and the students to be able to explore … new software that is part of what makes this industry so great”—and a new way to develop future digital artists.

Schools can sign up for the contest and get curriculum guides here.

Marty Levine

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press...