Pub talk

Su­ranga Nanayakkara — In­ven­tor

Metro Magazine NZ - - People To Watch - TEXT — KATE RICHARDS / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY — MEEK ZUIDERWYK

Most peo­ple won’t achieve in a life­time even a lick of what 37-year-old Sri Lankan-born in­ven­tor Su­ranga Nanayakkara has al­ready ac­com­plished. An over-achiever since child­hood, this year alone he’s joined the bio­engi­neer­ing fac­ulty at the Univer­sity of Auck­land as an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor, had one of his in­ven­tions recog­nised as a world-chang­ing idea, and will be talk­ing about his ef­forts to hu­man­ise tech­nol­ogy as part of the “Rais­ing the Bar” pro­gramme.

Nanayakkara says he re­alised he was quite smart when he got to sec­ondary school: “[There is] this su­per­com­pet­i­tive exam which de­ter­mines who goes to univer­sity and who doesn’t. Given the num­ber of stu­dents who take it, it’s a ma­jor hur­dle for univer­sity en­trance,” he ex­plains. Nanayakkara fin­ished fifth out of 200,000 stu­dents.

On a path to a ca­reer in engi­neer­ing, the log­i­cal choice would have been to ap­ply to the best tech­ni­cal school in

Sri Lanka, which hap­pened to be 10 min­utes from his home. Only 100 peo­ple are ad­mit­ted each year, so it’s a big deal to get a place. But, de­spite not speak­ing any English, Nanayakkara was keen to study abroad.

A chance sight­ing of a news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ment of­fer­ing study loans for un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore (NUS) changed his life. The scheme would pro­vide full tu­ition and some liv­ing costs, to be paid back over 20 years on com­ple­tion of the stu­dent’s stud­ies.

He left for Sin­ga­pore with US$1000 in his pocket from his mother, who had be­come the fam­ily’s main bread­win­ner as well as house­keeper and handy­man after Nanayakkara’s fa­ther fell from a bus and was paral­ysed in 1997.

Nanayakkara ar­rived to find NUS of­fered a schol­ar­ship pro­gramme that he was el­i­gi­ble for, too, but the ap­pli­ca­tion process in­cluded writ­ing a sup­port­ing es­say in English. Six thou­sand peo­ple ap­plied. “My friends were writ­ing about new tech, new re­search, all sorts of things,” he ex­plains. In bro­ken English he told the ex­am­in­ers his main re­spon­si­bil­ity was “to do my stud­ies at my level best and make the most use of my mother’s ef­fort, and that was it”. He was the only Sri Lankan to win a full schol­ar­ship. “I thought, now ev­ery­thing is given, the least I can do is make the most of the op­por­tu­nity.”

The in­spi­ra­tion for Nanayakkara’s com­puter-hu­man in­ter­face work — a life­time re­search project which tries to aug­ment the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence by mak­ing tech­nol­ogy more in­tu­itive — be­gan in Sin­ga­pore. On ar­rival, he was pre­sented with a lap­top, some­thing he’d never used be­fore. He soon saw a prob­lem — the lap­top wasn’t in­tu­itive. Even its own parts didn’t work cohe- sively to­gether: you have to con­nect a cord to the wall, then to the lap­top. Any ad­di­tional hard­ware has to be con­nected sep­a­rately again.

“It struck me that maybe the rea­son it was dif­fi­cult for me to learn to use a com­puter wasn’t me, it was the tech­nol­ogy,” he ex­plains. “I thought maybe the tech­nol­ogy needs to be re­designed so we don’t feel dis­abled by it.”

Out of this frus­tra­tion, Nanayakkara and a friend cre­ated a copy-paste tool, which al­lows users to lift in­for­ma­tion — a phone num­ber, for ex­am­ple — from one de­vice and paste it into an­other with the touch of a screen. “Rather than look­ing it up and hav­ing to type each num­ber one at a time,” ex­plains Nanayakkara, “I just take it as if it were a phys­i­cal ob­ject and drop it in my phone”. It works by send­ing the high­lighted in­for­ma­tion to the user’s cloud and down­load­ing it to an­other de­vice with an­other touch.

It’s so smart that Sam­sung bought the patent, de­vel­oped it into an app called Sam­sung Flow, and hired Nanayakkara’s friend as one of the com­pany’s vice pres­i­dents.

Fin­ger Reader, a de­vice that as­sists

It struck me that maybe the rea­son it was dif­fi­cult for me to learn to use a com­puter wasn’t me, it was the tech­nol­ogy.

the vis­ually im­paired, is an­other of Nanayakkara’s in­ven­tions, which he de­vised after notic­ing a fel­low univer­sity stu­dent, who was blind, was strug­gling to study.

His re­search group has been work­ing on Fin­ger Reader since 2012. Over the years, they’ve re­fined what was a fairly cum­ber­some de­vice into some­thing slicker and eas­ier to use: the user wears a small ring on their in­dex fin­ger and a set of wire­less head­phones. When they want to “see”, they point to what­ever is in front of them and press a but­ton on the ring. A cam­era in the head­phones cap­tures the text, which the de­vice then reads back to the user.

Fin­ger Reader, which Nanayakkara first de­vel­oped at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in the United States, this year made the fi­nal round of judg­ing in Fast Com­pany magazine’s World-Chang­ing Ideas Awards.

He and his team are con­tin­u­ing to re­fine the de­vice, in a bid to make it ac­ces­si­ble to all vis­ually-im­paired peo­ple.

And he’s taking his ideas about tech­nol­ogy to the pub­lic as part of Rais­ing the Bar, a pop­u­lar an­nual pro­gramme of talks which sees Univer­sity of Auck­land aca­demics speak about their re­search in bars around the cen­tral city.

Nanayakkara’s is one of 20 talks be­ing given at 10 venues, all on Au­gust 28. He is speak­ing at the Bird­cage in Free­mans Bay on “Hu­man­ity and the ma­chine: Is tech­nol­ogy go­ing to make our lives bet­ter?”

We can’t think of any­one bet­ter qual­i­fied to tackle the topic.


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