Gaurav Mittal is an innovator, entrepreneur, hacker and in some ways a social worker determined to impact the lives of millions of visually challenged people. His latest work on a device called EyeD is already creating a measurable impact on almost 5000 users and counting many more with each passing day. The journey from an engineer to innovator is very interesting as well as inspiring and sharing this with CSG community is a pleasure.
He belongs to a small town in UP named Anpara. His father being an electrical engineer realized the importance of technology and obtained a computer with Windows3.0 installed in his office. Gaurav immediately took liking to the concept of computers and it became his passionate interest. However, he got his PC or ‘personal computer’ a desktop computer with Windows 95 after 3 years of persuasion. Soon, he immersed himself in the world of computers and found a destination for his passion at IIT BHU. While at IIT, he developed and honed the skills of hacking and aspired to be a professional hacker. His dream got fulfilled very soon with an assignment as hacker at CITRIX technology. He thoroughly enjoyed the job of hacking the codes written by software developers and providing insights for securing and strengthening the software. This experience enabled him to participate and win many innovation competitions while the ‘intrapreneurial’ environment of the organization helped in understanding the process of shaping an idea into a product. He was allowed a sabbatical of 3 months to work on such ideas and feels very fortunate to get that experience while working. These experiences positively sowed the spirit of entrepreneurship in him and the thought process.
A visit to the National Association for Blind (NABD) Bangalore in 2012 marks a turning point in Gaurav’s entrepreneurial journey. There he learnt the blind way of life (literally speaking) through experience for example, he was blindfolded and asked to go to main gate and come back to the room inside. He instantly recognized the fact that seemingly trivial tasks for people with vision translated into big challenges for the visually impaired. What impressed him most was the determined attitude of blind individuals in overcoming these challenges. His interactions with the NABD associates made him realize that some of them were extremely bright and could write software codes as well. He could appreciate the challenges these students faced and how they could succeed in overcoming those to create something as complex as software codes.
During his visit to the association, there was another incident that set him up on the current journey. A senior official from a reputed company, who had lost his vision at an age of 30 years entered the room and greeted everyone but received no response from the 15 odd people present there. Everyone had an awkward feeling of confusion but patiently, he greeted once again. This time everyone responded and upon hearing the response, he turned himself to the crowd and faced them. During the first greeting, he was facing the audience backwards creating a slight awkward moment which got resolved subsequently. This particular incident left Gaurav pondering on the engineering solutions that could help visually challenged people feel the presence of people they are interacting with or their surroundings.
He turned these thoughts into a hobby project and created seven prototypes for seven different problems, including a glove with a camera and so on. But he was shocked at the response received during the demonstration of these prototypes at NABD. His target audience rejected his prototypes as they did not address the ‘real’ challenges from a visual impaired perspective. He learnt an important lesson in innovation that day: always understand the needs of the target audience. He shares this piece of wisdom with all the budding entrepreneurs that to arrive at a solution with wide acceptance, it is important to communicate with the target and approach the problem with real world insights rather than embarking upon an intellectual pursuit. He now interacts very frequently with the staff and students at NABD to assess and understand their needs that require a solution and then designs the technology around those needs. He is motivated to come up with technologically superior solutions for the visually impaired life every time he interacts with his audience. During one such interaction, he was asked a very interesting question on whether he can develop a technology that will enable identification of colors. The person had never seen colors but read about them in books and shared that he is dependent on family and friends to achieve even small tasks such as wearing color coordinated dresses and wishes to make these decisions independently without help. He understood that the most pertinent applications of technology in the visually impaired world are towards creating a self-reliant world where basic life activities can be conducted and enjoyed without help from others.
He decided to quit his job and make the hobby project into a professional goal that he is truly passionate about. He now works with a team of three to develop an app based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for visually challenged that helps them identify objects in their surroundings, colors of these objects, find nearest hospital, store, read printed text on labels and documents (which is free at this point of time). A blind person walking on Indian roads might not realize they are going to step into a puddle but with this app, they can. They currently support 5000 plus monthly users and their goal is scaling up to a million users in the next 5 years.
The astounding response from the users who could read the label on aspirin bottle at night without anyone else’s help and could sleep well, add red bell pepper in their food as opposed to a green bell pepper and many other stories of self-reliance keeps them pacing towards the goal and motivated against all technological odds. To keep this communication alive, the users of the app can interact with the developers directly via SMS/call/live chat that is a distinguishing feature and a direct translation of the first lesson in innovation learnt by Gaurav.
Their interest in transforming the visually impaired life does not end with an app but continues with designing more products and solutions such as an adaptable keypad that can be pasted to the keypad of smart phones and uses audio feedback for typing.This improvised device and app together allow usage of Whats App, Email and SMS by visually impaired. They are hoping to launch this product soon and recognized nationally by Government agencies to win an award called ‘best innovators of 2016’.
We hope that their story encourages some more people to come forward and innovate for challenged sections of society. Gaurav says that there are millions of problems waiting to be solved. You, my reader, pick one and solve one. If not, fail at one?
About the Author
Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts her work on Facebook as Ipsawonders.
Edited by Dr. Satya Lakshmi