This Is New York: Shree Nayar, Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers
This Is New York: Shree Nayar, Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers

NEW YORK—Wouldn’t it be nice if there existed a simple point-and-shoot camera that was equipped with a regular lens, a wide angle lens, and the capability to shoot 3-D photographs? There is, but its target market is children. And in order to use it, a child must assemble the camera him or herself.

The idea is to inspire a child’s curiosity in science and technology; albeit, the website notes, anyone from 8 to 108 years old can use it.

This very camera is called the Bigshot camera and it costs $89 (while a Samsung camera with 3-D capability costs $499). It is the brainchild of Shree Nayar, 51, a very busy computer science professor at Columbia University. Not to mention, he co-directs the Columbia Vision and Graphics Center and heads the Computer Vision Laboratory. Amid classes, papers, and talks, Nayar somehow found the time to develop the prototype for such a camera and founded a social venture, Kimera, LLC, which is short for “kid camera.” He uses the revenue to donate cameras to less fortunate children.

The Bigshot project was partly funded by a Google research award and an Office of Naval Research Instrumentation grant, for the premise of this project touches on social, cultural, and futuristic considerations.

Although he believes that technology’s proliferating growth in the 21st century is a good thing, Nayar also senses that this mass exposure to technology may be limiting future engineers. “I’m worried that the next generation of engineers are going to be disconnected,” he said. “They take devices for granted. The cellphone is mystified, everyone has one but few actually know how it works.”

“That’s what Bigshot is for,” he said. “It allows them to touch and feel what is inside.”

Art and Science Become One

The camera arrives as a kit. During the process of assembling the kit, a child is exposed to various concepts such as power generators, LED flash, electronics, and image processing.

Various components of electricity generation—from gearbox to dynamo—are explained in a very visual way.

The Bigshot website has an interactive text book that children and teachers can use to learn how each component works as they are putting the camera together.

The Bigshot camera not only comes with batteries, but also a manual power generator that allows the camera to take photos even when the battery runs out. This way, a child learns about an electric generator similar to the one that powers homes. When the crank on the side of the camera is turned, a dynamo converts the mechanical energy of that rotation into electrical energy.

“Each component is an opportunity to teach and inspire,” he said. A child not only knows how this camera is powered, but also how large hydroelectric plants generate power for homes.

“Whether it’s taking photos or being photographed, it’s an emotional experience,” he said. “The camera’s appeal can be used to teach science and the arts.”

All kinds of sophisticated cameras sit in his office—like the Cyclops, a spherical robot that includes a compact 360-degree camera, which captures a circular image that can enable a remote viewer to see the surrounding environment as if they were on site.

Although Nayar has done research on such intricate cameras, he is not a photographer himself. If one asks him what is the latest photography gear to buy, he wouldn’t know.

“I’m not a person who buys new technology anyway,” he joked. He came from a line of engineers who prefer to fix what is old.

Inspirations From India

Nayar came from a middle-class family in a Southern Indian city called Hyderabad; they moved to New Delhi when he was in the seventh grade.

Nayar recalls his father as an engineer who could fix anything.

“He had this uncanny connection to inanimate objects,” he said. “My father was an engineer’s engineer. There aren’t many people like him today.” Neighbors would drop off radios and televisions for him to fix. They never bought a new car.

“And I was his sidekick,” he said. “When I was 8, I often didn’t know what he was doing exactly, but something rubbed off. It’s this precious experience that happens outside of the classroom.”

He spent many evenings during his childhood underneath an old car with his father. Through a crack from the car, he would eye the fading sunlight, and calculate how much time he had left to play cricket.

As he looked back and reflected, he said it was precisely during those times with his father when a disposition grew in his subconscious. Without his father telling him, he decided that he wanted to be an engineer, too.

He went on to get a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from The Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1991.

It wasn’t until he came across a 2004 documentary called “Born into Brothels” that he realized how he could use his expertise to make a wider, social impact.

The film was a portrait of children living in the red light district of Calcutta, India. The director, Zana Briski, gave each child a camera and taught them how to use it. And it changed the children’s lives; one child’s work was exhibited in a photography conference in Amsterdam.

Building on that idea, Nayar created Bigshot. He saw the poverty in India firsthand. It wasn’t the inhumane living conditions that stood out to him, but the children’s lack of hope and inspiration.

“Many children in those areas have accepted their lives as fate,” he said.

He said he might have given up on the project if it weren’t for the overwhelmingly positive responses he received during the prototype’s field tests in New York City, Bangalore, Tokyo, and Vung Tau in Vietnam, where they gave the Bigshot camera to 8- to 14-year-olds from a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“This is a humble camera, really, that’s not going to change the world,” he said. “But it’s all worthwhile if it can inspire kids, especially underserved ones, and make them believe that they can be something more.”

This Is New York is a weekly feature that delves into the life of an inspiring individual in New York City. Read a new feature every Saturday online, and every Friday in print. See all our TINYs here.

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