The first is the presentation with as main attraction Dave Wilson, the companies director of academic and corporate marketing who, in about one hour, manages to use as many words as I use in an average week.
The second thing is the exoticness of the project subjects. From non-invasive cancer diagnostic to bridge structure testing to quantum mechanics, the geekier the better seems to be the devise.
Finally, it is the international character of the project that amazes me. The projects are literally sent in from all over the world and no part of the world seems to be favorized.
The winner of the grand prize, an entry in NI's hall of fame, was this year the paper "FPGA-Based Feedback Control of a Single Atom Trajectory". You can find it on NI's web site.
To improve your chances to win next year make sure to use at least a Kalman filter, a couple of Hall effect sensors and PWM in your system. Dave will love it!