HYDERABAD, India – A robotic leg for a 5-year-old boy whose right leg is paralyzed. A Smartphone battery that charges every time its user hits the keypad. A tablet that enables physically challenged people to control virtually everything in their home—from the room temperature to the lights to the doors.
These are just a few of the projects being worked on by two dozen or so students at a single-story veranda-style structure known as the Microsoft i-Spark Centre Innovation Academy, one of more than 100 such centers around the world and one of the first in India.
Housed in an $87,000 building that was specially constructed for innovation and inside a spacious yard with a tropical ambience, the center—where students remove their shoes and enter barefoot in order to keep it clean—is located on the outskirts of the city on an extension campus of the Padmasri Dr. B.V. Raju Institute of Technology, or BVRIT, a 14-year-old institution that is one of a growing number of private-sector colleges in India.
Though the i-Spark Centre bears the Microsoft name with the computer software giant’s blessing and employs the use of its products, the company’s contribution to the colleges isn’t financial or technical assistance. Rather, the affiliation with Microsoft provides a platform for students to present their ideas—namely, at an “ideation contest”—the prestige that comes with being linked to an industry giant and the promise, however near or remote, of one day winning a position at or the chance to collaborate with the global firm.
“It adds value,” says Dr. T.S. Surendra, principal at BVRIT, which is based in the Medak District about an hour from Hyderabad. “We have no complaints about that.”
The company, of course, gets a little extra recognition, but, more importantly, a convenient, no-cost means to scout and cultivate talent in diverse sectors of the world.
For students, the primary benefit is having a place where they can get hands-on experience and work on projects that could potentially get recognition and support from Microsoft in their bid to take the products to market.
“We never thought of doing projects like this,” said K.B.V. Pavan Kumar, 22, one of several students working on a “UBI Panel,” or “ubiquitous panel,” a tablet that enables people to control various aspects of their homes using touchscreen technology.
“But once the Microsoft people came and said, ‘We’re having an idea contest, come up with some ideas,’ we started thinking about products we can actually work on,” Kumar said. “After that, we went to industries, we studied the products that they are preparing (and asked), ‘How can we extend the technology that is being run now?’”
Though the center is dubbed an “innovation center,” perhaps “extend the technology that is being run now” is the most apt description of what is taking place there.
Although the projects are sometimes spoken of and regarded as “new,” the reality is that several of them already have been introduced in various forms or are on the market already or will be soon.
Despite the varying degrees of novelty and prevalence of the products, the point is to have students understand how today’s products work so they can be better suited to improve upon such existent technologies.
This is achieved by having the students put together schematics for their products, assemble them and study the science behind how they work until they can explain it to others—all things that are essentially prerequisites for taking existent technology to the next level.
“The purpose is to have them work on some existing technologies so that they can come up with some better ideas and innovations,” said K. S. Reddy, dean of academic affairs at Sri Vishnu Educational Society, a nonprofit organization that oversees BVRIT and a dozen or so other private institutions. (In India, Dean Reddy explained, private-sector colleges must function under the auspices of a nonprofit organization.)
Students say the things they do at the i-Spark Centre represent a refreshing change from the kind of education they got prior to their entry into the world of higher education.
“In India, everything is theoretical; it’s not that practical,” Kumar said. “You get this exposure only when you step into college.”
Dr. S. Kalaimgal, a computer science engineering professor and recently appointed coordinator of the center, says the center provides the opportunity to gain experience that goes beyond books and lectures.
“The main thing is making young minds think and giving students a chance to do something beyond the curriculum,” Kalaimagal said. “They get the opportunity to try out their idea, and the college environment gives them all the flexibility they need.”
Students work on their projects outside their regular class time over a period of several months to prepare them for the ideation contest.
They deal with aspects of product development that range from identifying and ordering the materials needed to build a particular device to finding ways to make it affordable for the average consumer.
They don’t get course credit per se, but Dean Reddy says they get something more valuable.
“What they get is a real-time hands-on experience on the technologies, which, for them, when they go for interviews is much more valuable than credit,” Reddy said. “The majority of the students who worked at i-Spark earlier were able to get into good companies during their campus placement, better than those who did not work at the i-Spark Centre.”
There’s also a very humane element to the whole operation in that many of the products being worked on at the center are geared toward helping people with a variety of disabilities.
For instance, T. Thejaswi, 22, an i-Spark protégé who also serves as an assistant professor at the Shri Vishnu Engineering College for Women, is working on a voice-activated dental chair that enables dentists with foot impairments, particularly those brought on by polio.
Three students—K. Sravani, M. Sruthi and J. Sai Kumar, all 20—are working on developing a “Robo Leg” for 5-year-old Sai, whose right leg has been paralyzed from birth. They came to know about the boy’s plight through Abhilasha, a Hyderabad rehabilitation center for special needs children. In short, the leg operates based on ultrasonic sensors placed at the tip of one foot and the heel of the other such that the Robo Leg will essentially take the same length of step as the child’s working leg.
Helping humanity in general and the disabled in particular is actually part and parcel of BVRIT as an institution. At the main campus, for instance, students work with organizations such as India’s National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped and the Sweekar Rehabilitation Institute for the Handicapped to develop products that meet the needs of the organization’s clients, such as walking sticks for the blind that vibrate when an object is in front of the person.
Dr. Surenda, the principal at BVRIT, says such projects represent a win-win situation.
“Students get hands-on experience,” he said, “and clients get help.”
Affiliation and cooperation with corporations is also a common practice at BVRIT. For instance, the main campus has an IBM Center of Excellence, where students can get certified by IBM in various computer sciences.
Although Microsoft and IBM are rivals, that is of no consequence to BVRIT.
“We are an academic institution,” Dean Reddy said. “So, we have the freedom and flexibility—offered by the companies themselves and signed in the respective MOUs [memorandums of understanding]—to work on these technologies without any conflict of interest. But, as of now, strictly for academic purposes.”
‘If any idea is likely to be commercialized,” Reddy continued, “we take it out from the common college facility and give them an independent facility, as per the company’s prescribed norms.”
The students would undoubtedly love to see that happen. Teeming with energy and enthusiasm as they spoke, several reported that their projects were nearly done and that all they had to do next was write the computer code and order the materials.