Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dhairya Dand: In search of truth

 Dhairya Dand: In search of truth

A shape-shifting screen, interacting with auras, tickling shoes, Dhairya Dand's creations are changing our interaction with the world. As he slips his feet into many shoes — that of teacher, researcher, inventor —  Wonders if his soles rest easy on being a philosopher

I'm working to make technology that can be empathetic to human age, grow old with us and die,” says Dhairya Dand, of one of his latest projects – a bacteria-based computer that will die some day.

Coming from someone who has been described as the ‘Gizmo Man of MIT’, those words appear to be on the cusp of technology and into the realm of science fiction. Linger for a bit though and ponder over the 27-year-old's statement and see if it's possible not to be transported into a philosophical field – one where mortal life isn't a footnote in an eternal and ever-growing expanse of ones and zeroes. The idea of technology that is finite, in the same manner as a human life is – and not just in its hardware, but in its building blocks – reflects a humanist approach rather than a purely technical one.

The computer he is working on is “not utilitarian”. “This won’t be a faster or a better computer, but an alternative one... made of what we are made up of. It will be 'alive' and it will die or it will multiply,” explains Dhairya. “Just as a paper photo acquires folds or discolours with time, so too with this computer... the images will acquire age, a voice, a personality as time goes by.”

Playful creations

Even as he talks about a computer with unique traits, other creations of his that are fast finding various applications, not only exude personality but even chutzpah. For instance, 'Obake', which he created with fellow MIT researcher Rob Hemsley, is a shape-shifting screen that can be poked, pulled, warped and stretched. Or his 'SuperShoes' (insoles, really) which, when connected to a mobile phone via Bluetooth, tickle your left or right foot to guide you to a destination. The insoles promise to delight by reminding you about things you tend to forget or by guiding you home when you are lost in any city. There's also 'Cheers' and 'Musik', among dozens of other playful inventions. Cheers is an ice-cube that seeks to prevent an alcohol-induced black out by measuring the quantity and pace at which you drink, turning from green to red – following which the ice-cube alerts your friends to intervene. Musik is a sensor-based contraption that allows you to play a musical instrument even if you've never played it before.

But not all of his creations have made it to the marketplace yet. While Japanese auto giant Toyota and American fitness company New Balance bought three of his inventions last year, some of his creations have been limited edition ones and others have been exhibited at museums across the world.

On Eureka moments

Driven by the need to gratify his curiosity, Dhairya's creations are derived from his “experiences or things I needed to change about myself”. During his student years, for instance, he was put off by the litter that cigarette butts ended up creating. So he put seeds in cigarette stubs and ended up planting hundreds of seedlings at Powai’s Industrial Design Centre (IDC) campus.

Dhairya is also zealous about learning, observing and experiencing. “I absorb everything I can. I long for new experiences. I do this without the hope that any of it would lead to a project,” he says. “No Eureka moment is an overnight job. It's a product of years of work and care.”

Born to a father who taught him plumbing, and a mother whose knack for storytelling he fully embraced, Dhairya's years of work came when, as a teenager in his first year of studying computer science at Veermata Jeejabai Technological Institute (VJTI), he assembled and sold computers at Lamington Road. “Mostly because this was one more way to learn more about this magical tool. That is how I funded the first year,” he says. Internships at Google and Harvard paid for his middle years at VJTI. In his fourth year, Dhairya and classmates Ravi and Mini had sold their SMS platform for rural grievance redress called Lokshahi to a political party, funding his further years.

Life as a nomad

Since graduating from VJTI in 2009, Dhairya has lived and worked in nine cities in the last seven years. “It's my way of putting myself in uncomfortable, new situations where my mind’s idea of the world is thrown into the dirt upon seeing a new reality,” he offers. “You then have to recreate your idea of the world based on this new experience. It's the same feeling as being reborn.”

But whether he is teaching at the Carnegie Mellon University's design school in Pittsburgh or at the Seattle base of his futuristic design studio oDD, Dhairya maintains his routine: run, meditate, work, dance, meetings, write his diary, reflect, read and sketch. He also collects textures and enjoys poetry; the latter has, in fact, given him food for thought for a project he hopes to next work on — using the three-pronged structure of a haiku. “It starts from what is known, moves onto the unknown or the bizarre and finally ends at the aha, or how a quirky, weird idea can truly change things.”

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