At 14 years old, Srijay Kasturi was the youngest person ever to compete in the Enabled by Design-athon innovation challenge held last November by UCP’s Life Labs program. Along with his mother Sudhita, Srijay was on the winning team which came up with an idea for an app for people with autism. UCP was thrilled to discover that Sirjay was an inventor with another concept, called STRIDE, already in progress. Although he has no personal connection to disability, his creations have centered on the concept of helping people with disabilities better navigate, and as a result, participate in the world. In this interview, Srijay describes his motivations and the evolution of STRIDE for people with visual impairment.
UCP: When did you first realize you had an interest in innovating with technology?
SRIJAY: I have no idea when I realized I had an interest in innovating. My parents say that I have been thinking of creative solutions for day-to-day problems from a young age. One of my first innovations was around the age of 12, so about 2 years ago, and I’ve just been going since then!
UCP: What was your inspiration for STRIDE? Do you know someone with vision impairment?
SRIJAY: No, unfortunately (or fortunately!) I don’t know anyone with vision impairment. STRIDE is really the evolution of one of my old(er) inventions, the Camera Centering Tripod Mount (CCTM). Once I finished my proof of concept for the CCTM, I submitted it to the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge where I, and the CCTM, were selected to be finalists in the competition. Once selected, I worked with a mentor from 3M, Dr. James Jonza, to develop the CCTM further. However, once I started working, my mentor and I discussed if there was a way for the CCTM to help more people… and from there, STRIDE (stepwithstride.com) was born. STRIDE eventually went on to win 3rd place in the competition, and well, the rest is history.
UCP: Tell us how it came to be and how you envision it working for people.
SRIJAY: I envision people using STRIDE in their everyday lives, 24/7. They put it on when they put on their shoes, and walk around all day using it. STRIDE alerts the user to any objects in their path. The closer the object the stronger the alert. One of the advantages of STRIDE is that if the user changes shoes they can move the device from one pair of shoes to another. STRIDE involved a lot of hard work, and a bunch of trial and error. They say to do anything, it takes 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration! This is definitely the case for STRIDE
UCP: Is this your first invention?
SRIJAY: Nope! STRIDE is based on an older invention of mine and shares a lot of the same ideas with said older invention. Since childhood my dad has encouraged me to think creatively and outside the box which has led to innovation and inventions.
UCP: What other areas of design and technology interest you?
SRIJAY: Hmm… that’s a tough one. I love programming software, to the point that I used programming to finish an English class project – an innovative approach to English class! I love web-design, and I have created various dynamic websites using the Flask framework for the backend, and the Bootstrap framework for the frontend.
UCP: How did you hear about the November 2014 Enabled by Design-athon event?
SRIJAY: In March of 2014, there was a Mini Makers Faire, in Northern Virginia, near where I live. I was one of the Young Makers at the Faire and Mr. Patrick Timony from the D.C. Public Library stopped by my table to learn about STRIDE. Mr. Timony is their Adaptive Technology Librarian. He told me about the Design-athon and encouraged me to register.
UCP: What motivated you to want to attend?
SRIJAY: When I realized that the aim of the Design-athon was to help people with disabilities, I realized that it would be a great event to go to, not only to help me understand what I needed to do with regards to STRIDE, but to meet other like-minded people, including the great people here at UCP! The event gave me a better understanding of the challenges faced by people who have disabilities and how many things we take for granted.
UCP: Tell us about your team, idea and experience at the event.
SRIJAY: My team, called Stars at War, consisted of 8 people. We all came from various viewpoints, and different perspectives, so we each brought something unique to the table. Our idea was a product called Simplyfi. We learned that people with autism sometimes take take idioms literally. Simplyfi helps translate hard-to-understand idioms into simpler easy-to-understand straightforward English.
For example, if you say that the Design-athon was “a piece of cake”, a person with autism may think quite literally that the event was a piece of cake, while we’d understand that by a “piece of cake,” you really meant it was very easy. To help alleviate this problem, we built an app that defines these idioms, so that they can better understand the figurative language.
UCP: Are you interested in developing this idea further – possibly bringing it to market?
SRIJAY: Yes I am! There still is a lot of work that needs to be done for the programming of Simplyfi. However, I have been so busy developing STRIDE that I really have not had much time to focus on Simplyfi and finish programming it – but I do intend on finishing it sometime in the near future!
There is also a competition called DECA. For this event we have to write a marketing plan for a product and my partner and I decided to write a plan for Simplyfi. Here’s to hoping we move on to ICDC (International Career Development Conference)!
UCP: What is the status of your current project?
SRIJAY: I decided to revamp STRIDE so it would better fit the needs and wants of the visually impaired. I would like it to be Bluetooth-enabled so access to building maps etc. via an app are available to users. For STRIDE to be more sleek, I am working on a hardware redesign using smaller components. I’m looking for advice in the fields of case-design and software to make the device more accurate and usable. I would also like to consult with a patent attorney and look into funding sources so I can take STRIDE to production. My goal is to have STRIDE ready for market by the end of the year. This of course, will mean getting some help in the area of marketing, if anyone wants to collaborate with me.
UCP: Do you collaborate with anyone on your ideas?
SRIJAY: Yes! There are two amazing Facebook groups that I just love. The first is Hackathon Hackers (HH), a group of over 1000 people dedicated to helping others write programs and compete at hackathons. Also, I am a part of a Facebook group called High School Hackers (HSH). HSH was created for the sole purpose of getting high schoolers interested in programming, and attending hackathons. Aside from Facebook groups I am also heavily involved with a makers space in Reston called Nova Labs. Nova Labs is a great place full of people who are extremely knowledgeable about all kinds of things. In fact, I owe most of the success of STRIDE to Nova Labs, since I have learned so much from the mentors there!
UCP: Tell us more about your thoughts on open-source and why you would want to keep a part of this invention proprietary?
SRIJAY: I believe that open-source is the future. Open-source projects basically allow for improved sharing of ideas, and allows for these ideas to help the most number of people. I decided to release enough of STRIDE for anyone to create it, but I am keeping enough of STRIDE proprietary so that I can still sell a unique product and have control over it’s pricing and future development.
UCP: What are your plans for the immediate future? Your career?
SRIJAY: I am a freshman in highschool so a lot of my efforts are dedicated towards learning and doing well in school. I am also studying Sanskrit, an Indian language, learning to play the Mridangam, an Indian classical instrument, and I am a 2nd degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. In the immediate future I would love to take STRIDE to market. Making Simplyfi available as an easy to use Google chrome extension is another goal. I also want to pursue a career in filmmaking, so we’ll see how that goes…