Authors: Akshat Agrawal
Tags: #Indian Innovators
© Akshat Agrawal
First Jaico Impression: 2015
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Dedicated to my teacher, Shri Vineet Swarankar, without whom I could not have achieved what I did…
Gurur Brahmaa Gurur Vishnu
Gurur Devo Maheshwarah
Guru Saakshaata Parabrahma
Tasmai Shri Guruve Namah
This book would not have been possible without the cooperation of all those who have been featured herein. Each one of them showed great support and encouragement for the idea and generously gave their time for the interviews, despite busy schedules. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for honestly sharing their stories with me.
I especially thank Mrinmayee Bhushan for penning a section on the patenting process, which can be of immense use to budding innovators.
Personally, it has been a very rewarding journey for me, because I learned something from each person I interviewed for the book.
I also thank my friends Ankit Mittal and Himanshu Gupta for their valuable feedback and my publishers for putting their faith in me.
Last, but not the least, I thank my parents, who have supported me through thick and thin. Their unquestioning support has been my pillar of strength.
A discussion with an acquaintance in the US veered toward Indian engineers. My acquaintance stated that he respected Indian engineers, but didn’t believe that any significant product-oriented research was taking place in India. There were no path-breaking, scalable products with global appeal coming out of the country, he said.
Over a period of time, I have realized that he is not alone in that belief. Many others are also skeptical about India’s position on the innovation map of the world.
Undoubtedly, India lags behind several Western countries in innovation. According to the Global Innovation Index 2012, prepared by INSEAD in association with World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), India was ranked 64 among 141 nations surveyed. However, there is a growing tribe of men and women in the country who are devoted to product-oriented research with exemplary success.
In the process, they are also shattering the stereotypical image of Indian innovation, that of
that is, modifying or adapting Western technology to meet the demands of the price-sensitive local market.
Economic growth in a country usually leads to growth in innovation, as there is greater demand for better products and also greater competition to supply those products. As more players try to benefit from the existing opportunity, they are compelled to innovate in order to differentiate their products from those of their competitors.
Thus, economic growth leads to innovation and innovation, in turn, leads to further economic growth.
Unfortunately, our society does not encourage creative thinking to the same extent as in the West. Choosing an unconventional path is less likely to be appreciated. This attitude inhibits the process of innovation in our country.
In order to foster an environment for innovation, it is extremely important to highlight the success stories of innovators. This would help them garner much-needed attention and appreciation and also motivate the next generation to follow in their footsteps.
This book is a small effort in that direction. It chronicles the journey of a few innovators who toiled hard to make great products from scratch, despite facing greater challenges as compared to their western counterparts. This book is a celebration of their indomitable spirit.
The men and women featured in this book are from various parts of the country, belong to different age groups, have different educational backgrounds from PhD degrees to little formal education, and have worked in a variety of research areas. What unites them is their passion for what they are doing and their undying faith in their idea, despite numerous challenges. They represent a facet of new India – the India that refuses to accept defeat and is hell-bent on proving its potential.
Their stories also provide useful insights into the process of innovation – the challenges involved and the institutional support available in the country.
This book is a salute to the spirit and willpower of these innovators, and it will surely bring about a change in the innovation landscape in India.
“People who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do."
– Steve Jobs
Haptic Shoe for the Visually Impaired
When one thinks of an innovator, the image that comes to mind is of a dedicated, academically inclined person, following a planned path with clear goals. Nothing could be further from that image than Anirudh, with his boyish looks, cool hairstyle and flashy goatee, ready to venture into the unknown with fervent optimism and addictive zeal.
Anirudh was born into a middle-class family in Delhi. His father, a farmer’s son, had migrated to Delhi from rural Rajasthan to obtain tertiary education. He was the first in his family to do so, and went on to become a professor at Delhi University. He has always been a strong influence in Anirudh’s life.
Anirudh admits that he was a “troublemaker” since early childhood and always had an insatiable urge to know more about everything around him. He would often dismantle a working radio to find out who really made that noise? and earn the ire of his parents. He once used his compass to dissect a cockroach, because he wanted to see what a cockroach’s stomach looked like and then terrorized his friends with the same. He was blessed with a creative mind, but would rather use it to plan the next big toilet bombing than toward cracking the next big exam. As can easily be guessed, this did not earn him any kudos from the teachers or the principal at school. Parent-teacher meetings were probably the toughest part of his school life, with an average report card and an above-average list of pranks to discuss.
The only thing he excelled at, while in school, was sports, especially cricket; he made sure that he got enough opportunity to play it via class bunks. Life was all good until Class X. For a change, he aced the Board exams, scoring a brilliant 89.6%, thanks to a few months of dedicated hard work and a strict mother. However, the real struggle started thereafter.
Anirudh reminisces, “I chose to get into the non-medical stream, which in India essentially means trying to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), or at least into an engineering college. The increased work load and increased expectations about academic performance, coupled with peer pressure and the rashness of the late teens, led me toward desperation. I was hardly able to study or focus on anything. As a result, I failed in the class XI exams. My school gave me another chance, and luckily, I didn’t screw it, though I barely managed to pass.”
That was the bad patch in his life. His confidence was shattered and the people who cared about him were very concerned for him. He also gave up his dreams of clearing any entrance exam or achieving anything big in life, and found refuge in the rebellious world of Pink Floyd. He moved away from his erstwhile friends, who were still busy preparing for the coveted IIT Joint Entrance Examination JEE), and instead, found company among people as aimless as himself.
“Looking back, even I do not understand what I was thinking at that time. Probably, that’s what we call teenage.”
Anirudh’s life changed when he ventured out of home after Class XII, living independently for the first time. He rented a room in Jia Sarai, which is considered a den for people preparing for IIT and IAS exams in Delhi. Though he was supposed to be attending classes at Brilliant Tutorials to prepare for a second attempt at IIT-JEE, he only went for a couple of classes and then dropped out, without his parents’ knowledge.
“In that despicable room, an archaic desktop was the only companion I had. Gradually, I developed a fancy for animation, largely due to the freelancing projects that earned me a decent amount of money to have an enjoyable life outside my parents’ control.
Needless to say, I could not make it to IIT or any other godforsaken engineering college.”
However, he continued with his effort for another year, with no success. Finally, the next year, his parents decided to enroll him in a nondescript engineering college under Rajasthan Technical University (RTU), near Bikaner.
“Life couldn’t get worse. From the urban sprawl of Delhi to the deserts of Rajasthan, it was a culture shock for me. Moreover, getting back to attending banal lectures reminded me of the hated days at school.”
Thankfully for him, the college did not have mandatory minimum attendance.
“I almost never crossed the 10% attendance barrier that I had set for myself!”
Going to RTU, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Anirudh, for he forged new friendships that were to have a great impact on his life.
During the first year, he met Rahul Motiyar and Sudhanshu Gautam. While one was the son of a carpenter, the other was the son of a railway repairman; but more importantly, both were full of enthusiasm for learning technical stuff hands-on. “There was an instant chemistry between the three of us and we became a formidable team, with our complementary skill sets.
Together, we embarked upon the mission of mastering the touch user interface technology, which was relatively new at that time. We had a modest aim of putting up a good show at the technical events hosted by the premier technical institutions across the country.”
The three friends named themselves “Team Sparsh” and the first success came soon. At the hardware design competition at BITS Pilani, the team won the first prize, beating teams from some of the most reputed campuses in India. “We won
30,000 as cash prize, a princely amount for us back then.
Obviously elated, we set higher goals and participated at IIT Kanpur’s hardware competition. We stood first again, beating teams from across Asia this time!”
Team Sparsh then decided to collaborate with the Industrial Design Center at IIT Delhi to take the work on the touch user interface forward. “Those were heady days. I had to learn everything from carpentry to coding and electronics, but the thrill of doing something so unique took the fatigue away and it never felt like work. We were totally intoxicated with technology, so immersed in work that we didn’t know the difference between day and night. I had become so obsessed with touch user interface devices that my friends started calling me “Touch Addict”. In fact, that is still my identity in the world of blogs and tweets.”
Anirudh also started conducting workshops in several colleges on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and founded the Linux User Group (LUG) in Rajasthan.
The work with touch devices and open source software led him to the Google Summer of Code (GSoC) program, a task-oriented summer internship where students were expected to complete a challenging open-source software project. During the program, he got the opportunity to work on Google SketchUp, a 3D modeling tool that was being developed by Google for design professionals.
“The money involved in GSoC is substantial, which is a good motivator. You get paid $5000 for two months of work! In fact, I got into GSoC for two consecutive summers and thoroughly enjoyed the experience on both occasions.”
He was set to graduate by then, and to his parents’ relief, landed a job too. This was no ordinary job, though, for he was picked to work at HP Labs, Bengaluru. It was a job that paid handsomely, and one he would have loved to do even for free. It also proved to be the next turning point in Anirudh’s life.
“My manager was Sriganesh Madhavanath, popularly called SriG (SreeJee), who is a Senior Research Scientist and the Principal Investigator for the Intuitive Multimodal and Gestural Interaction (IMaGIn) project at HP Labs, India. I learned a lot from SriG and he gave me complete independence to do things in my own way and at my own pace. I really appreciate SriG, because he could make a person like me work, no small feat given the fact that I am difficult to work with. It is usually my way or no way. At HP Labs, SriG showed enough trust in me and even allowed me to work on my own projects simultaneously.”
It was here that the idea of a haptic (pertaining to the sense of touch) feedback-based shoe for the visually impaired took root in Anirudh’s mind.
“I used to see visually impaired people daily in Koramangala, where I lived. One night, while staring at a new pair of Reebok shoes in my room, I thought,
‘Hum inhen chalate hain, kya ye humen chala sakte hain?
(We make them walk; can they make us walk?)’ It struck me that it was possible, if we could put sensors on the shoes along with four or more vibrators, each vibrating to indicate the direction in which one should walk.
Everything I needed to make this was available in the room. I immediately disassembled my Android phone and took out its vibrator. LilyPad, a wearable microcontroller, was lying in my cupboard. I assembled them, wrote a small code with Google App Inventor and conducted the first successful demo. It was seriously that simple.”
While the initial design may have been that simple, months of work have made it much more complex and sophisticated now.
There are four vibration actuators on each side of the shoe and the interactions happen via a smartphone. The shoe works only with a smartphone as of now, but technology is being developed to enable interaction using a simple phone as well. You can voice input your destination into your smartphone. The phone then interacts with Open Street Maps via GPS, and gives directions to the device in the shoe via a wireless connection between the shoe and the phone. The directions are then relayed to the user via vibrations. The user needs to walk in the direction of the vibrating actuator – the left vibrators indicate a left turn and the front vibrators indicate walking straight ahead.
Further, there are proximity sensors to sense obstacles as far as three meters ahead. Unlike conventional GPS navigation, users can customize the path they want to take between any two points. This was an essential requirement, because the visually impaired may want to choose a smoother path – one with fewer obstacles – rather than the shortest path, or may want to follow the path they take every day, rather than the one indicated by the system.
The device is designed such that it can fit into shoes of any shape, size, material or design; and the shoes would not appear any different from those without the device. The device is also strong enough to withstand rough, day-to-day usage.
Anirudh has named his haptic shoe as
which means “Take me there/Lead me” in Hindi. After months of painstaking development to add greater functionality and robustness, he tested the prototype on patients at LV Prasad Eye Institute in Bengaluru; the shoe was very well received.
In early 2012, Anirudh was named Innovator of the Year by MIT Technology Review in India for his haptic shoe technology. Many other awards and recognition followed. He was even invited to deliver a lecture at the TED event held at BITS Pilani (Goa campus).
Around this time, a common friend introduced him to Krispian Lawrence, an American patent lawyer. With Krispian’s help, Anirudh worked toward patenting the technology. Together, they incorporated a firm named Ducere (meaning “to lead” in Latin) Technologies in order to develop a commercial version of the device.
“Soon, I decided to quit my job at HP Labs and work full time at Ducere. I moved to Hyderabad and another friend from college, Kunal Gupta, joined me to help with the electronics part of the device.”
The bootstrapped company has been looking for the right investors.
“The shoe presents a big business opportunity, with an estimated 40 million people across the world affected by partial or full blindness. The cost of the shoe works out to be just a little over that of a regular pair of good shoes. Because blindness is not something that affects only the rich, affordability has been the prime concern during the design phase.”