Sundar Pichai may be top dog at Google, but he can’t make you snap your finger and control a smartwatch. Or rub on a cloth to turn on a light bulb. That is the specialty of Hakim Raja, the lead hardware engineer for Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, the team that works on some of the coolest projects at the company.
Raja, in his early 30s, is a relative newcomer to Google who was contemplating a year-long travel through South America before he was waylaid by Ivan Poupyrev, an award-winning scientist, inventor and technical lead at Google ATAP. “Hakim had a sparkle in his eyes when I first told him about my big ideas; he is certainly one of the most talented engineers I have worked with,” says Poupyrev, a former principal research scientist at Walt Disney.
“He (Raja) led the gesture sensor’s engineering from conception to tape-out and did it in record time — just four months,” says Poupyrev of Google ATAP.
Born in Bengaluru, Raja would tinker around with nuts and bolts at his father’s hardware store, showing an early penchant for making stuff that has led him to a company where he is helping create futuristic technologies such as gesture recognition and cybernetic clothing through what are known as Project Soli and Project Jacquard.
Recall Tom Cruise in the movie ‘Minority Report’ controlling onscreen objects with hand gestures? Project Soli is straight out of a science fiction flick, using radar built into tiny microchips. The system identifies subtle finger movements within a range of about two to three feet. In a span of 10 months, the team shrunk a shoebox-sized radar to fit into a microchip. According to Poupyrev, Soli has the potential to be a part of anything from cars to toys, furniture, a wearable computer and games, literally anywhere people want to connect with devices.
The team is working on designing these chips into developer kits, enabling the developer community to build compelling applications that could become a part of people’s everyday lives. “Along with our semiconductor component partners, I design and implement the chip that enabled gesture sensing,” says Raja. Raja, whose aim was to pursue a PhD in computer architecture, ended up taking the bare minimum courses required in electrical engineering at Stanford to graduate with a masters’ degree. Instead, he spent most of his time taking courses in computer science, mechanical engineering, design, biomedical engineering and business. “I had found a new passion for product design,” says Raja, “The Stanford years transformed me from a technology and domain-focussed engineer into a product, user-focussed engineer.”
Project Jacquard is bound to leave fashion and tech enthusiasts ecstatic about the future of wearable technology. Imagine controlling your smartphone with a mere tap on your shirtsleeve or a single stroke against your living room curtains automatically dimming the lights. This is not possible yet, but it gives us a glimpse into what lies ahead. By weaving metallic threads into clothing fabrics, Project Jacquard plans to create the ability to control a technological device. Google has tapped Levi’s as its launch partner. “The challenge lies in integrating the electronics into the fabric in a mass manufacturable manner,” says Raja.
The ATAP team remains tightlipped about when products based on the technologies can be launched. According to US media reports, Project Soli might see developers creating applications that are launched for public use by the next year and Project Jacquard aims at releasing the first pair of smart jeans in 2016.