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to write poems or to study poetry?

It was almost the same time 3 years ago when I headed to Boston to pursue research at Fluid Interfaces Group at the MIT Media Lab. Time flied, too fast to perceive it went by..

The life before that was that of running around, seeking each resource actively, hanging onto IRC channels, attending FOSS events, to learn and to meet people in the virtual world of infinite internet. My undergrad college was in the middle of nowhere, with a sorry state education system, and marred by favoritism based on caste and regions. The only escape for the bunch of us was the infinite world of internet and some awesome friends we met during the hostel days back in Bikaner/Rajasthan. We had lost hope to the point that we decided to stop giving a damn about my GPA- to the point that we would travel during our semester exams as we saw no point in taking them (even if we did, we knew the result)- at best IT jobs. It was hard to explain to parents.

I was lucky to have really good mentors from childhood- physicsmonk, niyam. who actually reaffirmed that love for science isn't a bad thing. I also faced a lot of issues dealing with local lecturers who would think of me being arrogant 'Delhi' boy.

The college made me deal with the worst, which now I think was the best life lesson. I met the likes of amazing room-mates like Saurav, Rahul, JD, Baba, BK, Tetar.. All were really humble but wicked in their own ways..Some came from small-towns, some were talented with woodwork, rogue electronics, and others crazy enough to bet their college fee on commodity exchange market ( and losing all of it, twice)- he even organized a fundraising campaign to raise the semester fee he had lost betting. My job was to pitch to friends, assuring their money would come back.

The nights were busy coding, and hanging out on IRC, designing layouts and scripts. Days were busy dealing with college politics, issues of room-mates etc. I think that was the best of the education I could ever imagine, making us feel like we could deal with anything, backlogs, bankruptcy, excessive hangovers, breakups(++) and Bikaner summers (45-48 degrees).

After college (fortunately, with my academics, and India being a country where college brand could mean more than what you actually are) I got a chance to work with Imagin Group at HP Labs in bangalore which was like the best place in India to do computer vision/stereoscopy research with SriG. I was good at building interactive surfaces, and picked up a lot of knowhow from Rahul, Divesh, Adithya, and NUIGroup opensource community.

The days spent in Bikaner doing jugaad to build our Sparsh Multitouch setups paid off. I could sail through my work at HP Labs designing stereoscopic CAD interfaces with Pluribus, Sketchup and CMUSphinx. Most people in the lab came through elite colleges unlike me, I made friends, I used to hangout with them, but I had my own stuff to deal with- try new stuff, break this, try this, try that etc. And then Lechal happened, which made me quit my job and 5 month long search for a business partner. Lechal went a long way from a here to here in last 3 years, and we employ ~53 people today in Hyderabad. A lot of credit goes to Krispian, my business partner and everyone who helped during the initial days of trying to find that 2000$ investment in Bangalore. It was all good fun.

I decided to move on from a product to continue the journey of tinkering and went to the MIT Media Lab.  Going to MIT was this sudden inflow of awesomeness. It was like this 1 km radius where every soul you'd walk into would be driven with uber geekiness, overflowing with best of the gadgets, 5 spare iPads where one is required. Everywhere, every building you'd walk into would be full of ideas, papers that will become a part of technology, design and our lives 3-4 years from now. It reminded me of those days of amar chitra katha in what you want is there, is there!

Being at Media Lab was like being a kid in the candy shop not knowing what all to devour. You could mostly get what you need(also free booze on 99fridays, thanks novy). First two months was just absorbing ideas, people, cultures and such. I was taking a computer vision course at CSAIL, and in evening studying tangible interfaces by Ishii. Too much awesomeness like too much sugar can be harmful. Soon I realized I was a little lost with my research, the original reason I went there for.. There were just too many exciting things happening around in this little radius. After a while awesomness settled and I could for the next 18 months could focus on my research, and build some prototypes. Media Lab's glass architecture is very interesting, its transparent to promote conversations, and collaboration. There were times when you need to focus you need to look straight like a horse and not be distracted while the passer-by sponsors peep at you every moment.

I visited a variety of research labs, design studios during my studies but most that I went to were nowhere similar to MIT Media Lab. Either there were tech schools doing too much tech, or there were design schools researching too much design, some labs followed similar ideologies, but either they didn't have the MIT brandname and advantage of being in Boston, or adequate funding to experiment was crazy ideas without worrying about ROI. MIT Media Lab was like mashing up practitioners, engineers, artists, filmmakers, fashionists, biologists, scientists together into one greenhouse glass camp with no resource crunch. It was just too perfect, and it all felt like a dream. There were frustrations as well, actually those let me decide my career route.

Two directions after the Media Lab were left to choose, either academia/PhD or a job. PhD didn't make sense in application kind of work as tech trends have evolved so fast, in the last 10 years. I saw multitouch surfaces, large displays being the big hype and die as a fad within 4 years. Computer vision being commercialized by Kinect changing the way everything is tracked, so was most research done to track gestures/hands by simple RGB cameras rendered useless? I guess yes! The tech evolved too fast. I guess there were tonnes of PhD theses involved in studying RGB camera based pattern recognition. No harm, you do learn your math and writing papers but when it comes to getting stuff into the real world, you deal with realities, delays, funding, moore's law and unpredictability and chaos of the real world.

I didn't look for jobs and straightaway decided to contribute to the MIT Media Lab India Initiatives, which is doing some amazing stuff in India for the last 4 years. The initiative was born as an experiment by Andrea and Mihir, and now its gone places and creating impact. I am sleepy now, more on India Initiatives soon in the next post. Kthxbai




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