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Toying with e-waste


Dhairya Dand - an alumnus of Mumbai's Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute and former researcher at IIT Bombay - had his eureka moment while on a backpacking trip to Cambodia last year. It was in suburban Phnom Penh that he saw children, some barely seven, scavenging in an e-waste landfill to get a few grams of metal.

"Mountains of keyboards, mice, speakers and CRT screens stretched as far as my eye could see, and the air was heavy with hazardous lead and asbestos, " Dand recounts.

On investigating, he discovered that the children belonged to families that had migrated from villages. "They were not interested in school since most of the learning is rote-based, and hardly any practical skills are taught, " he says. "Instead, they chose to work to bolster their parents' meagre earnings, even if it was an additional dollar a day. "

Dand went back to Singapore, where he was a researcher at the Keio-NUS CUTE Center - an institute that focuses on digital innovations and media fusion - and began thinking about what he could do to help. "And then it hit me. E-waste can be recycled to create safe electronic playthings for children... That is exactly how ThinkerToys started. "

After consulting with students, parents and teachers, the 23-year-old decided to make a set of gizmos that could double up as teaching aids. His experience at NUS CUTE and at IIT's Industrial Design Center came in handy during the process.
"While at IIT, I had worked with kids who had cerebral palsy, inventing gadgets and interfaces for them to communicate, " he says. "At CUTE, my work revolved around how digital technology could be fused along with the physical world. This resulted in a device with which kids could carry their social networks and online identities into the playground. "

After eighteen months of research and development, the 23-year-old emerged with four cheap-to-produce edutainment kit modules - Keyano, Randomath, Storynory and TV++ - that can be paired up with discarded e-waste like keyboards, mice, speakers, headphones and LCD screens.

"I realised that if e-waste had to go back to the factory to disassemble for reuse, it would prove to be costly, " he says.

Dand has now uploaded all the code for his toys on https:// github. com/dhairya (a resource that allows programmers to share code). His kits combine with discarded hardware by using a simple plug-and-play mechanism.
"You could go to any part of the world, pick up e-waste directly from the landfill, and plug it in and it should work without any modifications. "

To design the prototypes, Dand used Arduino, an Italian circuit board that is popular with artists, musicians and the DIY community because it's easy to use. "I started out with Arduinos for the earlier versions of ThinkerToys to validate and test the idea. The new circuits cost less than Rs 100 to produce and are one-tenth the size without Arduino. "


To promote ThinkerToys, Dand has also started openToys (bit. ly/KZKfTx) - a Google community that boasts of more than 100 members, including designers, engineers, e-waste activists, NGOs and teachers from around the world.
"We live in a connected world, and distributed communities have never been so powerful, " he says. "Already people from countries such as Brazil and Philippines, as well as cities such as London and New York have adopted ThinkerToys to develop gadgets and teach children at the local level, " he says.

As of now, Dand is planning a batch of 200 toys. "I am thinking of having a kickstarter campaign for that. By the end of this year, I want to have enough funding to begin production of the toys and ship them to Cambodia, " he says.
After that, he intends to tie-up with China-based Seeed Studio - an open hardware facilitation company that designs modular electronics for quick prototyping and small scale projects.
"But I'm also interested in collaborating with NGOs that work with children in municipal schools, " he says. "My goal, although it sounds insane, is to convert all the e-waste on our planet into toys. "


is a math puzzle game made up of a small LED screen and keyboard. The screen is a calculator's LCD which displays addition, subtraction, division, multiplication puzzles that can be answered using the keyboard. The microcontroller inside is programmed to ask random questions, to keep a score, to display encouraging factoids and messages in between.

Production cost:

Rs 95


allows children to listen to prerecorded audiobooks using an old pair of headphones or some working speakers. Each of the stories is read out in the local language to the user. StoryNory has a headphone jack and an onboard controller with a small memory chip that holds the stories. While the initial stories are open-source stories from StoryNory. com, more stories can be recorded in any language and played back.

Production cost:

A little over Rs 350


turns an ordinary computer keyboard into a piano with the QWERTY keys musically mapped to notes. Just about any keyboard, whatever make, however old, can be connected to it. The Keyano circuit is made of three parts, the interface which connects to the keyboard, the microcontroller which contains the key-note mapping and the speaker which outputs the notes. All these components are small enough to fit in a closed palm.

Production cost

: Rs 80


is a visual game made from an old TV screen or CRT monitor. The educational games displayed on the screen can be controlled by a good old-fashioned wired mouse and keyboard. TV++ connects to a CRT monitor or an old TV where it displays the game, two mice are connected to TV++ which act as controllers. The chip contains a TV driver and microcontroller.

Production cost:

A little over Rs 250

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