Hardware is becoming the new software: Ramesh Raskar
Mumbai: Ramesh Raskar holds more than 40 US patents for inventions such as Cornar, which allows cameras to see around corners with the help of ultra-fast imaging; Bokodes or long-distance barcodes; and EyeNetra, a low-cost, eye-care device that sits atop mobile phones and issues prescriptions. Born and schooled in India, Raskar joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Media Lab in 2008 as the head of its Camera Culture research group. In an interview in Mumbai, he underscored three trends—hardware becoming the new software, empowerment of the consumer and crowdsourcing—that are forcing companies to rethink business models. Edited excerpts:
Is there a common thread underlying your inventions?
In the Camera Culture lab at MIT Media Lab, we like to say, lights, camera and pixels. The key idea is that instead of focusing on fun, games and entertainment, we focus on health, wealth and well-being.
So the phone is being used for more than calls and data...
Four years back, we started speaking about a hardware app store as opposed to a software app store and I began promoting the idea of using the phone for purposes that it was not designed to do. After all, a phone is a scientific instrument since it has all sorts of input and output devices—sensors, actuators, display, etc. My passion now is to create hardware attachments to the phone—optically, mechanically, wirelessly, biologically, etc.—to transform it into a new instrument.
Your EyeNetra is one such example. How much progress have you made?
EyeNetra is a tool that sits atop a phone and you look through it, click on a few buttons, and it gives you a prescription for your eyeglasses. Around 300 million people in India need glasses but don’t wear them, which means children remain uneducated and grown-ups cannot do their jobs, and that leads to illiteracy, unemployment and poverty.
Since this attachment (EyeNetra) is not very expensive, we think we will be able to perform eye diagnostics with a lot of accuracy, and the solution will be available in the next few months in India. Vinod Khosla invested $1 million, and we recently received additional funding. You will initially see EyeNetra being used in optical stores, and later in schools and villages. We are working with companies. We are also working with a lot of students from India, and the ideas that come from there are incubated in research and development labs in a non-profit setting. We have one such project with the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad to enable students to become stakeholders and take those ideas forward.
You have also made a camera that can see around bends. What are the applications?
Cornar was a crazy idea when I joined MIT five years back. I was obsessed with the notion of how we can see around corners, and sent a proposal to the National Science Foundation, which was rejected. But the idea stuck and I finally met with success. I, meanwhile, realized that the instrumentation I created to see around corners could also be used to create ultra-fast imagery. So we created the Femto Camera, which helps us see light in motion and create virtual movies at 1 trillion frames per second. All the parts are open source, but the cost of the camera is close to half a million dollars. But one can also create a camera for as low as $1,000, though it is not as precise. With Cornar, you can build cars that can avoid collision since they can see around bends; or endoscopes that see inside the body; or search for survivors in hazardous conditions.
What are the trends that you see?With the cost of hardware falling to almost zero, it is becoming the new software. You can ideate, prototype and iterate very quickly with software without any infrastructure. Now you can do the same with hardware. The second trend is that consumers have become very savvy. For instance, with the help of apps and medical devices, patients have more say in their treatment. The third is crowdsourcing—tasks that are too difficult for a single person or entity are now being submitted to the wisdom of the crowd, for example, Wikipedia. All these three trends, especially in a country like India, are shaping the way we do commerce and work and play.