Multi-disciplinary and focusing on societal problems is the way to go!
Prof Prabhat Ranjan heads TIFAC as its Executive Director. TIFAC is set up as a Technology Think Tank and is an autonomous body of Dept of Science and Technology, Govt of India. Recently Prime Minister of India launched Technology Vision 2035 prepared by TIFAC under his leadership. He obtained his PhD from University of California, Berkeley and did college education from IIT Kharagpur and Delhi University. He has received many awards for his contribution to Science and Technology.
This interview covers the approach taken by Prof Prabhat Ranjan (advisor of InnoHEALTH magazine) for solving societal problems, especially in healthcare.
Tell us about your motivation to innovate in the Medical Domain?
I did PhD in nuclear fusion, then immediately came back to India in 1986 within a week of finishing my studies. My purpose was to serve nation and society rather than to chase publications. So, I changed my field from astrophysics to nuclear fusion a week before I was joining for my PhD studies.
Nuclear Fusion as you know is a field where building a reactor requires multidisciplinary skills. I was responsible for bringing two Indian reactors to the International standards. My venture into disabilities happened by chance. When I joined Dhirubhai Institute of Communication Technology, we had an approach that all students should work on design projects linked with real problems of society. I had two students Ramya and Pallavi, who were focused on a project on disabilities. They went to visit blind people association in Ahmedabad for scouting problems.
When they went to Hyderabad for vacation, they came across news of a girl who had Cerebral Palsy. The girl had passed 10th standard in spite of the medical condition and the story made it to the newspapers. They travelled to Chennai to meet the girl. Students came back and narrated the story of this girl, Bhawana to me. She could either change the television channel or volume and not both at the same time. I said, “Let’s give her a better system.” That was the task we took upon.
Gross movement of hand was used to operate the television set. Up down movement of hand to change the channel and left right movement of hand to change the volume. That’s how I got into the medical technology space. Our initial work started with this student project, where we tried to develop a system, which could allow persons with restricted finger movement (incapable of pressing remote control button) operate TV by using hand gestures to change volume and channel. After developing a prototype, we added the capability to not only operate TV but also other devices such as light, fan, air-conditioner, computer etc as per the need of user.
This device, which we named as “CePal” won us HP Innovate first award in 2009 and National Trust funded it for further development. With further improvements and user trials, we finally developed two versions of this to meet different needs called “Mini-CePal” and “RF-CePal”, which was given to various users as per the requirement of the National Trust.
What is the cost of this technology and some Technical Details?
The cost of this technology would be in millions in the US but the same technology in India is priced at just INR 4000.
(i) CePal : Hand gesture based Environment Control Unit (ECU)
Figure 1: Mini-CePal : Single piece device – needs to be pointed towards the equipment
Mini-CePal: This device is made in one piece and mounted on hand/wrist. It monitors hand gesture of the user and sends an Infra-red command through an IR LED mounted at front of box. While it has the capability to operate four different types of equipment, it has been found most suitable to operate a computer for those who do not have fine finger movement to press keyboard buttons or button based remote control. 50 of these devices have been distributed by National Trust to various user agencies.
Figure 2: Base station with one of the flexi-tube LED shown. Up to four such LEDs can be connected
RF-CePal : This system consists of two parts:
(1) A fixed base station (as shown in figure 2),
(2) Hand device (as shown in figure 3)
Figure 3: Final version of the hand device with four LED indicators
Hand device monitors the hand movement using accelerometer in two directions: Up/Down and Left/Right. It also detects taps by the user. All this is transmitted to base-station by wireless communication using Zigbee protocol. This system supports up to four equipments. One can change the equipment being operated by tapping the hand two times within a defined interval. It also has 4 LEDs to indicate, which mode became operational. A fifth mode “sleep mode”, is also defined, when the device ignores hand movements.
Base station acts as a gateway between hand device and equipment to be controlled. It receives commands from the hand device using wireless communication. It interprets this information and prepares the control commands to be sent to equipment to be controlled. It has IR LEDs mounted on flexi-tubes, which can point in the direction of equipment. Through this, it is able to control the equipment as per the intention of user. This also has four LED, which lights up to match with the LEDs on hand device to indicate the equipment being controlled.
Detailed technical description of this device is given in Reference.
(ii) Systems Based on Brain-Computer Interface
In many cases of severe disability, the user is not able to move any body part and some are not able to speak as well. For such cases, we have used the latest development in the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology to provide capabilities to the user to be able to use a computer and to control Environment (TV, Light, Fan etc) based on brainwave and head movement monitoring.
We have taken advantage of the development of neuro-headsets for playing computer games, where brainwaves (EEG waves) of the user are monitored using these headsets to improve their gaming experience. With games market being very large, these devices have become much cheaper and easier to use. This is making it possible to take advantage of this development to help persons with disability at a much lower cost and for wider use.
We have been using Emotiv Epoc headset[2,3], which collects EEG waves from 14 different location on the skull as well as tracks head movement using a gyro-sensor. All this data is wirelessly transmitted to a computer, which can process this further. Depending on the user’s ability and need, we can recognize the facial expressions, emotions and train the system for recognizing certain conscious thoughts. This can be combined with the information from gyro-sensor to provide a means to communicate in those cases where users do not have any leg/hand movement or voice. Many users with spinal cord injury, Muscular Dystrophy and other issues can immediately take advantage of this.
Brain-CePal: In addition to being able to communicate through a computer, we also developed a system by which user can control the environment around them. This is based on our earlier work of RF-CePal and we modified the system to make it operable through computer and control environment around them through neuro-headset. Depending on user’s need, this can be completely done through user thoughts although as of now we have not come across any user needing this capability.
Any particular insight for the readers or the industry peers on how to foster Innovation in health sector?
The health sector is no longer a sector, which can be confined to the boundary of one field. Today, 3D printing can make a major difference in the health sector but medical professionals are not aware of its full potential. Similarly, they need to work with engineering experts who may be of great support in achieving newer kind of medical technology. The medical education in India should allow students to take more courses outside the medical domain in order to enhance their capabilities to do multi-disciplinary work.
How can other scientists who are outside medical field contribute to the health sector?
Yes, there are discussions going on as to how we can attract scientists from various other domains. If we focus on problems faced by society rather chasing the incentives of publications, we can dissolve these silos easily. Multi-disciplinary work is not easy, one needs to move out of their field’s boundary, learn new things and work with others.
Is there anything that you would want to inform the readers, who are interested in future innovations in health care?
On February 10, 2015, we had a discussion on future of brain where we looked at how human brain and computer (Artificial Intelligence) can combine together to perform various tasks and we are planning one more discussion in February 2017, which will focus on future of human species and how certain technology areas which are called exponential technologies may impact the future. So, I would like you and others to participate as we finalise the date. The discussion will revolve around the topics of Robotics and the impact on jobs. The purpose of the medical field is to improve the quality of a person’s life as well as the fundamental changes taking place around us. We expect that development of these devices would make a major difference in the life of persons with disability.
 Juhi Ranjan, Hiren Shah, Sanika Joshi, Brijesh Chokhra and Prabhat Ranjan, RF-CePal: “A Universal Remote Control based on MEMS accelerometer”, Sixth IEEE Conference on Wireless Communication and Sensor Networks (WCSN-2010) at Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad, December 2010.
 Emotiv Epoc Neuroheadset : http://www.emotiv.com/store/hardware/epoc-bci/epoc-neuroheadset/
 Neurosky headset : http://www.neurosky.com/