Pranav Mistry – Innovator of Sixth Sense Technology – Technology that Makes Sense

Posted on June 7, 2010

Shruthi Venukumar:

The famous diamond traders of Surat originally hailed from Palanpur. Today, their most astounding diamond has made us proud spreading its dazzle beyond the confines of our country, across the proverbial Seven Seas. Research assistant and PhD candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, Pranav Mistry hails from the small Northern town of Palanpur, Gujarat and went on to become the stellar innovator and inventor of the award winning Sixth Sense technology. After getting a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering from Nirma Institute of Technology, Ahmedabad, he enhanced his skills at IIT Bombay and MIT to become what he calls a desingineer (a cross between an engineer and a designer).

Sixth Sense technology is the science of tomorrow with the aim of connecting the digital world with the physical world seamlessly, eliminating hardware devices. Mistry’s flirtations with the digital world began in the early 2000s when he pieced together four mouse rollers with pulleys and springs to give shape to a motion sensing device. This device interprets gestures made in the physical world and replicates them in the digital world. Next he gave the omni-present sticky note a digital makeover. Using RFID, ink recognition technology and Artificial Intelligence, a simple scrawled-on sticky note can be digitized to enter the digital world of computers. These can then be shuffled, sorted and managed on your computer screens. Digitized sticky notes (or Quickies) set as reminders can jog your memory regarding tasks through an SMS or E-mail. Jotting down a question on a quickie prints you the answer. All it takes to message someone on their cell phone is write a note on a quickie. Next in tow for Mistry was a pen that can draw in 3D (a technology popular by the name “Inktuitive”).

With the invention of intuitive computer interfaces, the digital and physical worlds came together closer than ever. One just has to place an object (anything from a flight boarding pass to a key) on a Tangible Public Map (TaPuMa) on its horizontal smart screen to get inside-out information about it. Keep a coffee cup on a particular spot on the map and a whole range of cafés in the area is brought to you on a platter.

Pranav’s eagerness to pop pixels out of the digital world into the real world led to the birth of Sixth Sense technology. All you have to do to get seamlessly connected with the digital world is wear a simple pendant-like equipment consisting of a camera and a portable battery-powered projection system with a mirror (a more modish version is just round the corner). The device (now known as the Sixth Sense Device) when connected to a cell phone acts as a computation and communication tool. The camera tracks hand gestures and helps gather “meta information” (information from the surroundings) and articulates it with the digital domain. Wearing marker caps on ones fingers (a more stylish option is to paint the said fingernails in a different colour each) and making gestures with them, one can use any interface (Yes! Any interface! No longer is the human race tied to the bulky world of computer screens) to access and modify data. Clicking a picture is as easy as conjuring up a rectangle in the air aimed at the object of visual desire with the thumb and index fingers. A few finger motions help edit and resize pictures and another set of gestures later, the pictures find themselves E-mailed to recipients.

Watches are ancient history now with the prevalence of cell phones. With sixth sense technology, it is just “drawing a circle on the wrist” away from catching the current time. Soon one would be punching digital keys on one’s palm to make a phone call. Is the cell phone counting its days?

With this technology, touching marker caps to any object would expose it to the last shred of its fabric. For example, marker caps recognize book covers by matching it with millions of online profiles and bring to you all that there is about the book; be it summaries, reviews (both audio and video), Amazon ratings, you name it! Did anyone say never to judge a book by its cover?! The technology recognizes newspaper images and instantly the translucent paper comes alive with the motion video from which was tweaked the unmoving image. Finally one gets a taste of the world of Harry Potter. Hogwarts style! Weather updates would be brought to you live on your newspaper interface. Flight schedules can be checked without the hassle of taking out one’s phone and browsing through the requisite (and often elusively slick) icons. Sixth Sense Technology is different from anything the world has witnessed yet. Before you draw parallels between it and a Microsoft surface table, let the difference bear clearly. The former allows the user to employ just about any surface as the interface between the physical and digital worlds (thereby thinning the wall between the two) whereas the latter comes with a solid hardware screen.

Mistry made his own tablet computer much before they hit the market, using just a piece of paper, a microphone and a camera. Clipping the essential components of a microphone to a piece of paper makes the microphone receptive to when the piece of paper is touched and the camera tracks finger movements on the paper. As simple as it sounds, this technology enables one to account, compute and browse data (and even watch movies) on any piece of paper we can find around. Data like pie charts and statistics can be modified just by pinching the desired on and away from the paper. Missing your longstanding affair with hardware? All you have to do is pinch information from the paper to a computer screen and there! You can work with standard hardware. For old times’ sake! Worn out from working too hard? Accounts make a digital exit from the paper interface and on comes a gaming platform. Playing video games was never this fun where all one has to do to steer and veer one’s racing bike is to tilt the paper accordingly with the camera taking over the tougher jobs for you — a 3D experience on a 2D interface!

This is not all! This whiz kid has multiple dimensions running through his sphere of imagination (which is sans quota) at a time. His other innovations include the Mouseless – an invisible mouse that provides interaction between a user and a computer – thereby eliminating the need for a hardware mouse, and ThirdEye – a technique which enables multiple viewers to see different things at the same time on the same display scene (Example: a Signboard can be read in any number of languages by different viewers at the same time).

Using the traditional playthings of Indian children — marbles — Mistry gave shape to MARBO – a device which with its spherical screen and detachable marbles (digital memories) provides a new mode of interaction through which children can communicate with each other to freely express their feelings, as well as have fun by exchange of ideas, emotions – collaborative and interactive learning.

ProjectCHILD explores the cognitive abilities of the human mind and adapts them into computers to make them learn in a way humans do.

Under Project SunFlower, Mistry implemented a sunflower that could track the movement of the sun, used later in solar panels at his institute to get the most efficient energy-tapping angle.

Project Sandesh uses PSTN network, simple interactive methods and print or sound based medium in an attempt to bridge the communication gaps between the rural populace and their loved ones in cities. Sandesh contains a message receiving unit at the rural ends and kiosks at metro ends with visual aids.

Ghost in my Machine is an interesting foray into creating creative machines. Artificial intelligence gone viral?!

With the aim of reducing improper handling of system resources and emergencies due to inefficiency of existing scheduling systems, Project VET initiates decentralization of visit request registering and a map-based interface of VET for scheduling.

Global Positioning System is old news. Project Sthiti as a system design of local positioning and information system in comparatively tinier areas like college campuses, hospitals, shopping malls and multiplex theatres uses a simple handheld device (often a mobile phone) for location determination.

Project Akshar aims at simplifying the process of data entry in Indic languages (Indian languages) into computers, mobile phones, WLLs, Interactive TVs etc by using the unique feature of grouping five consonants in Brahmi-like scripts.

Mistry’s mission is to make computer surfaces more intuitive till the time the world of computers becomes synonymous with out physical one. A Sixth Sense Device is available at a price of $350 at present with costs geared to come down in a couple of years. The man’s mission is more humanitarian than technological. Nothing will make him happier than his technology coming to the aid of the disabled by augmenting their perception and interaction with the outside world — sixth sense leading to inducing fifth sense functions. According to Mistry, accuracy and precision in the way we process information can reach out to the actual needs of people. For example, running water pumps on remote or getting clear-cut weather forecasts can help farmers pocket much less losses than seen in the country and elsewhere in the present time.

Phew! All this and he is not even 30 yet! No wonder he is emerging as the scientific world’s favorite pick for awards and his books are creating ripples (real ones not digital; But then his aim is to make them one and the same) across the world. For this youth icon, encouragement and initiation were not far away from home. The earliest toys that this digital genius received from his architect father Kirti Mistry were handcrafted, leaving an indelible mark of scientific inquiry on his mind. As a seventh grader of the Gujarati-medium Vidya Mandir, his classmates and he made rockets to observe their working. Palampur’s heavy rains inspired him to make models of remote-controlled motor boats at that young age. When in the ninth grade, he was allowed to dismantle his dad’s old scooter, an exercise that he utilized to learn about the functions of its different parts and rectify their defects. Maybe drawing inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci who was a painter, engineer, architect, biologist and writer all rolled into one and who was a man much ahead of his times drawing sketches of helicopters much before technology gave wings to it, Mistry says that imagination is the only limit of how one can perceive Sixth Sense Technology to merge with real life. Reminiscent of the world’s greatest geniuses like Einstein, Pranav Mistry does not lead a slavish life cooped up in labs but has a more than well-rounded fulfilling one! An aficionado of Gujarati poetry, he spends his free time painting and playing tennis and cricket. He has an eye for Akira Kurosawa films and those starring his favorite actor Kamal Hassan and he loves the way his mother cooks Chinese food.

To a nation starved of scientific inquiry and temper, aggravated by a system of rote-learning, Pranav Mistry is the example personified of what the human mind can do if allowed to transcend freely from the confines of books with pre-fortified information and second hand research. Youth Ki Awaaz salutes the original thinking of this pioneering inventor!

The writer is the Production Manager of one of Youth Ki Awaaz’s upcoming projects.

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