In India, his country of birth, he noticed the incredible ingenuity of local electronic shops in fixing and modifying silicon technologies such as mobile phones. With this in mind he has developed digital products for medical and educational purposes, that those in developing countries can create themselves for very little money. Through these designs, such as a digital projector for village schools called the Lunchbox, he is trying to promote a new societal model that he calls the ‘silicon cottage industry’. Humans Invent spoke with Venkatraman about his vision.
I come from India and have grown up in an environment where frugality is built into society but I’ve noticed more and more that as countries like India develop very fast, the frugal way of thinking is disappearing and there is more and more consumption with very little thought into why things are the way they are. Many years ago I did my MA thesis on something similar so the thoughts had been bubbling away for a long time.
Why do you want to promote the concept of a ‘silicon cottage industry’?
Cottage industries were the pre-industrial way of doing things. It is how people built their society and everyone profited from it. There was a direct relationship between the end user and the producer. You would go to a cobbler and ask them to make you a shoe. It actually offered mass customization, it offered efficient use of local resources and it offered reasonable economics because it was a fairly transparent system. You couldn’t over charge people because they lived in the same neighbourhood. In the modern era the designers and the producers are disengaged from each other and the consumers are even further away from the producer, no one could see who was doing what anymore and everyone could squeeze more margins out of it.
Cottage industries were the pre-industrial way of doing things. It is how people built their society and everyone profited from it
A silicon cottage industry could work in a place like India because there are informal training systems for technology such as mobile phones. If you go to any of these places, those with knowledge are constantly educating other people so there is a lot of informal education in this sector to begin with. People are tinkering with the latest devices; they can find schematics for cell phones; they can download all kinds of PDFs and buy books that are not really authored but are a compilation of data sheets.
How does the Lunchbox work?
It is actually quite simple, we took a small mobile phone with a projector built in, which costs very little. We took it apart, changed the light source to increase the intensity. We realised that power was an issue with increase light so we actually bought a flashlight which has a huge rechargeable battery pack that gives you hours of lighting. We took that and we bought some inexpensive amplified speakers which you can find almost anywhere and we modified it all and integrated this whole thing as a product. In a sense it is not a brand new product, it is a hardware mash up.
For the files we started by using GSM, but it wasn’t quite working. We realised the network was pretty dodgy, you just couldn’t rely on it. We found a phone that had a USB port. It’s not that difficult to mail the USB key around. In every poor part of the world there is a very functional, efficient postal system and USB keys are getting very cheap themselves.
You can very easily do screening tests and health checks on hearing ability on just a small mobile device
It can be configured to do many things. It can work as a Pulse Oximeter – it measures oxygen saturation and pulse rate. It can be swapped, there are a host of sensors that can be attached to it. You can remove that and connect something else like a blood pressure monitor for example. You can basically attach a range of sensors because the clock is essentially a display with a micro controller that has some clever software on it because depending on what the context is you just plug in the right sensor and it automatically configures itself.
Are you working on any new projects in the same vein?
There are quite a few going on. One is an open-source hearing aid which might be really interesting because hearing aids are extremely expensive devices. The cheap ones are so bad that they hardly make a difference. The thing about hearing aids is that they have become a lot more software driven these days. There is a lot of digital processing going on in these things. The hardware can be fairly inexpensive and you can write some interesting open source software that does most of the signal processing which is the way we are going to do it.
We are also creating a mobile app which allows screening for hearing disabilities. Right now, screening is a very complicated affair, it requires really heavy equipment that needs to be carried around and it consumes a lot of power. What we have done is moved this all onto a mobile phone -we’ve made a small hardware piece that attaches to a regular audio output of the mobile phone which allows you to calibrate hearing. So you can very easily do screening tests and health checks on hearing ability on just a small mobile device that does not depend on power require you to drive around on a big truck.