Sidharth Anantha is a junior at Lexington High School in Lexington Massachusetts, but that’s where the similarities end between him and other 16-year-olds because his vision and his revolutionary work to date can easily rival that of adults.
Want to know what Anantha does that puts him in a league of its own? He has come up with an invention that assists the visually impaired to map their surroundings using “echolocation,” a process that also helps animals such as bats and dolphins get a sense of their surroundings.
The invention consists of a pair of wearable devices that are attached to glasses and shoes.
“My invention is a wearable device that uses two systems: The first system is the echolocation system, which uses a pair of sonars placed on both the glasses and shoes that measure the distance between the user and obstacles in front of them,” Anantha explained to India-West. “The recorded distance measurement is then processed in an Arduino microcontroller and a corresponding output in the form of both sound and vibration is outputted to the user. The feedback allows the blind to accurately gauge distance between them and objects around them. This allows the blind to understand where objects are around them.”
To help them realize the kind of objects around them, an object identification system is used, he explained, where a camera placed on the glasses takes continuous set of images and sends it to a computer.
“Onboard, there is a deep learning neural network for object recognition,” Anantha said. “This machine learning algorithm will analyze the images and identify objects, text and faces and read back the names to the user. This allows the blind to know what objects around them specifically are. The two systems work together to take in information on a user’s surroundings and convey it back to the user.”
And in order to expand the reach of the device and make it accessible to more people, Anantha has installed low-cost sensors and computers. The device has already been tested by several people, including Paul Parravano, co-director of the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations.
Anantha began toying with the idea of this invention when he was a high school freshman. The idea was conceived after he took a train ride in India where he saw a visually impaired woman struggle to work her way around passengers, luggage, etc.
“I started wondering if I could create a navigational device that would allow her to better understand her surroundings, and navigate with ease,” he recalled. “I self-learned most of the technical knowledge for this project.”
Anantha is not new to the world of tech invention. Ever since he was a child, he has been tapping into his creativity and his desire to create unique products. He still has his notebooks from childhood which have designs of potential inventions.
“My hobby of doodling went a long way in helping me develop the skills I needed to come up with new, unique ideas,” Anantha told India-West, adding that over the years he has learnt three main skills which acted as a catalyst in the activation of this device.
“The first skill is an innovative mindset that I learned when making designs for random devices in grade school,” he recalled to India-West. “Another skill was persistence. I learned that in order to come up with new ideas, I need to let other ideas fail… I see failure as a necessary part of the inventing process, and I strongly believe that if we see failures as constructive criticism, we can ultimately grow our inventions and our personal character. And technical knowledge. In middle school, I experimented with computer science, and developed my own programs and small inventions that used technology to solve everyday problems.”
Anantha is using the power of these skills not just for his own use but to also advance the careers of many with a similar approach to tech. For the past two years, he has been teaching classes at KT Byte, a computer school. Before he joined the team, the school mainly focused on online software classes, but Anantha said he initiated the school’s robotic program.
“I wrote the curriculum for a 6-week program, and began teaching elementary and middle school students Arduino, the same technology I used in my invention,” Anantha told India-West, adding that as the demand grew, he roped in more instructors and revamped the program, adding three more levels.
“We teach kids the basics of Arduino in the first two levels, and in the final level, we let students choose a problem they want to solve, and build Arduino-based inventions as solutions. Some of these inventions include a speech assistant for autistic children, an autonomous robot that puts out small fires, a delivery rover for vaccines in hospitals and an autonomous air duct cleaning robot,” he shared.
Anantha said he and other middle and high school instructors serve as mentors for these students and prepare them for the same competitions that he participated in.
“I took my love for inventing and my experience and gave it to other young kids in my community so that they could build life-saving inventions that would save the world,” he stated.
When asked if parents at first balked at the idea of a high school student like him and other youngsters imparting the training, Anantha confessed it wasn’t easy in the beginning.
“I feel that the parents are shocked at first, but when they see the confidence in the way we speak, they tend to overlook our age, and instead focus on our maturity,” he told India-West.
Anantha is fast gaining recognition for his work. After winning an award for his invention at the National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo, he was also selected to feature on the CW show, “Did I Mention Invention.” While participating on the show and meeting host Alie Ward was a fun experience, Anatha poignantly stated that being on the show also meant that he could serve as a role model for kids his age.
“Within a few years, our generation will be entering the work force, and we need to have an innovative mindset – always questioning conventions, looking for better, more optimized or new solutions to our greatest problems – in order to build new things that will progress our country and our civilization forward,” he told India-West.
Anantha, a professed longtime fan of airplanes, wants to study aerospace engineering in college, ultimately in hopes of fulfilling his goal of building a fully electric commercial aircraft.
“I am the only person in the entire airport who gets happy when the flight is delayed,” he quipped. “Every time I look in the sky and see a plane, I try to guess the airline, aircraft, route, class configuration, seat configuration and even whether or not the TV is touchscreen.”
But his immediate goal is – with the help of his 12-year-old brother Vikram – to expand his invention’s ability to detect more diverse objects. And with the help of an Indian American NGO, Anantha is going back to where it all started.
“I am planning a trip to India this summer where I test my product on blind people across the country and give them these devices to use,” he told India-West. “Eventually, I hope to further optimize the design and manufacture a production level model that will only cost $10 to produce. I want to take this product and distribute it across the world, giving anyone – regardless of financial status – the ability to ‘see’ again.”