Anirudh Sharma’s mind is brimming with ideas. The haptic shoe, which guides the blind, is one of his key inventions
Anirudh Sharma calls himself a “chronic inventor”. “I have to keep inventing things to stay alive. That’s who I am,” he says. His other favourite word is ‘tinkerer’. Thus far, the 25-year-old’s ‘tinkering’ has led to a haptic shoe, which guides the blind, a ruler that goes beyond simple measurements, a soot printer that makes ink from pollution and several other creations — all this without graduating from his engineering college. Yet, he landed a job at HP Labs and is currently a student at Cambridge’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In Kochi as an INK Fellow, Anirudh opened his talk with a stick-figure visual of a large class, and him, a backbencher. With two fellow partners-in-crime, Anirudh went onto to spend four years of engineering in a Bikaner college, jumping from one technical fest to the other, winning most of them. “But all three of us never graduated,” he says. His inventions, though, saw him through to a job at HP, Bangalore, which he quit after few years. The city is still special to him for he made his first commercial product there, in 2011. “Bangalore has several blind people and I was walking down a street when I saw one of them. I had a phone in my pocket, which had a vibrator mode to it. That’s when it occurred to me that I could create a shoe for the blind that had sensors which would detect their surroundings and vibrators embedded which could lead the person wearing them.”
When it was first conceived, Anirudh never thought it would grow into a business. “I’m an engineer; I just keep making new things,” he shrugs. But, trials of the haptic shoe with several blind people received positive responses. He also received letters asking him to build and sell the final product, one among them, from a lady who had 18 children, most of whom were adopted and had differing physical challenges. She wanted the shoe for a blind son. Thus Anirudh’s idea went through several market prototypes and is currently being manufactured from his start-up Ducere Technology, in Hyderabad, begun with his partner Krispian Lawrence. Through the experience, he says he learnt that “one invents usually to gratify oneself; but when the final product gratifies a user, the pleasure is of a totally different kind.”
'Take me there'
Anirudh’s shoe is called ‘Le Chal’, which translates to “Take me there”. In 2011, he was awarded the MIT Tech Review TR35 ‘Innovator of the Year’. At MIT now, Anirudh says, his life has moved into a completely new phase. Among his key inventions at MIT is Glassified, a reinvented ruler with a transparent display embedded in it. Plain lines drawn on a paper turn into a live physics simulation when the ruler is placed over it. Anirudh hopes to partner with Lego with this product.
His latest experiment though, has been the soot printer. “Pollution is all around us. What if we could find a way to capture it, and repurpose it into something we all use? Ink!” The contraption, which is now in its nascent phase, is palm-sized and captures the soot from exhaust pipes or chimneys, mixes it with vodka and oil to form ink. “I hope the final product can be attached to cars. So a 10 km drive could give you a full cartridge of ink.”
Besides these products that are under construction, Anirudh’s impatient mind is constantly brimming with new ideas. “I can’t stick with an idea for more than six months; I have to begin the next one,” he says. His next project works with his lifelong love for magic. MIT introduced him to his idol, and world-renown magician, Marco Tempest. “Magic interests me because of its inherent ability to surprise. I want to extend that quality to technology too, so I’m working with Marco, to supply technology to his magic shows.” Besides being a closet magician himself, Anirudh is also a tabla player. On the cards is a device that could hack into the mind of the tabla player, to develop a teaching aid for young learners. Anirudh’s post-MIT plan though is to come back to India and travel, beginning with Ladakh. Ask him how he thinks up his quirky ideas, and pat comes the answer: “You have to be a little crazy!”