He is in illustrious company. How many 23-year-olds can claim to share the spotlight with Bill Gates, Barack Obama and Stephen Hawking? India’s Roopam Sharma has been named one of the 100 global thinkers by the magazine with muscle, Foreign Policy. But that’s not the only reason why he needs to be celebrated. Roopam is the super sharp brain behind Manovue — a device that has been defined as the ‘world’s first intelligent wearable visual assistant.’ “The user simply wears this device on her/his hand. He or she gives a voice command to activate the device. The device has a camera on the index finger which starts scanning the surrounding. When it sees any printed material, the device extracts the text and speaks out aloud whatever is written over there,” says the youngster with an impressive academic record.
This gully boy grew up on the streets of Haryana, where he spent his wonder years playing outdoor games with friends. Never once did he imagine that life would propel him into the geeky world of technology. Roopam is both a scientist and an innovator who has a bachelors of technology degree in computer science and engineering at Manav Rachna University in Faridabad, Haryana.
Reminiscing about his modest past, Roopam recollects, “I’d laugh if you told me back in my childhood that I’d be an inventor. I was never raised to be a scientist and do something good for the society. Coming from a socio-economic background like mine, youth like me aren’t supposed to pursue research and development and look for pay-check to pay-check options. Thanks to my father who despite being an aged and retired senior, emptied his bank account so that I could get my education and go to college. I’m a first generation inventor and entrepreneur only because there were people who made sacrifices so that I could do what gave me happiness and pursue my dreams.”
In 2015, a casual conversation (with a friend) over post graduation job prospects, lead to a blindfold experience that had a life altering moment for Roopam. “My friend said he wanted to join the Army but he could not do so because he was colour blind. Unaware of what it meant, I asked him ‘what is that?’ He responded by saying that he could not distinguish between colours. Upon hearing that, I tried to pacify him by saying that he had many different career options with colour blindness and told him that he’s at-least able to see. But that got me pondering. I remember telling him, ‘What if you could not see anything at all?’ And it was this thought process that triggered my decision to blindfold my eyes and spend 30 minutes in darkness. The experience frightened me. When I took the blindfold off, I really felt lucky and the next question that followed in my mind was how it would be to spend your complete life in this darkness. This inspired me to visit a blind school in Delhi,” he recalls.
Roopam was deeply impacted by his visit to the blind school, where he interacted with several visually challenged youngsters. “Most of them had dreams and hopes for a prosperous future. I remember one of them coming up to me and saying he wanted to become an inventor just like me but he could not because the literature required isn’t available in Braille. The current scenario in terms of educational opportunities limits them from achieving a better life and these kids never thrive. It was only after these conversations with these individuals that I decided to do something for this community,” he adds.
During his interactions, he discovered that less than one per cent of the community is Braille literate. “It has considerable shortcomings in the 21st century like difficulty in language learning, unavailability and the high cost of Braille books and unavailability of all books in Braille. Due to this, the community has very limited educational and job options. There is an urgent need to change this scenario in order to secure a better future for this community and ensure prosperity for them,” reveals Roopam who decided to exploit his skills for the larger good of making and developing a new technology like Manovue. “At that time, I was a 19-year-old teenager who got his first computer at 18. I had to put in twice the effort than a regular inventor because I was never raised to build a technology and had to make sure things were falling into place. The device has been developed while interacting with the users at all the stages. The current pricing of `1,980 has been finalised only after the interactions and
survey feedback with the middle class Indian community members who suggested this would be an affordable price for them,” he confesses.
But he is not geeky in the traditional sense of the word. Roopam has been a fashion model too — an interest that began in his freshman year at college. “Runway modelling was something that appealed me back then and I did see it as future career at that time. The community that I now work with doesn’t judge me by my looks or my appearance. This is a completely different experience and I’ve got a very different perspective about life after working with this community,” says the charming youngster, with several prestigious titles to his credit.
In 2016; Roopam was selected as one of the top eight innovators by MIT. Two years later, he was honoured as one of Asia’s 21 young leaders in Manila. And now in 2019, Roopam joined the list of 100 global thinkers by FP magazine. What do these accolades mean to him? “I feel honoured to have been recognised on such global platforms. They serve as a reminder that there are people and organisations who believe in making the world a better place and want me to keep going and persevere until the goals are achieved,” says the focussed young man, whose sole desire was to earn a degree and get a stable job,
Roopam has indeed come a long way since then. But is he satisfied? Pat comes the reply “Yes. My decision of choosing altruism over cynicism gives me internal satisfaction. Following the road less travelled is hard, I face challenges everyday but isn’t this how humanity evolved as a species that made the world better?” Well said!...