Education

Just 19, This S'porean Made A Smart Mirror That Lets You Watch Netflix As You Get Ready

When I think of the term ‘magic mirror’, I think of the one that Snow White’s evil stepmother used to boost her own ego and suss out information about her…competition.

So when I heard about 19-year-old Singaporean Saral Tayal’s ‘smart mirror’, I wondered if it could do the same thing.

In a way, it does.

Acting as both a mirror and a screen that you can use to watch Youtube/Netflix videos and browse the web, his invention cleverly hides an Amazon Echo Dot behind the screen to enable all of Alexa’s voice control features.

Did The Simpsons call it (again)?

But of course, it wasn’t the fairytale that inspired his invention.

In an interview with us, he shared that he was actually inspired by “the concept of merging technology with reality”.

“Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) attempt to do so by overlaying digital elements on top of reality (AR) or by constructing a whole new virtual world (VR),” he explained.

“Both these concepts have tremendous use cases however, they both very new technologies and struggle to feel natural due to their huge graphical processing demands.”

The whole concept with the smart mirror is augmenting a physical mirror.

“The mirror part of the smart mirror still works like a traditional mirror [however,] when any part of the display behind the mirror is lit up, only that very part of the mirror will act as a display.”

While the final iteration was a success, he revealed that he had a fair share of struggles when searching for the appropriate material that would “behave like a mirror but also let light from behind through”.

Saral and his smart mirror

He ended up using a one-way mirror, typically used in police interrogation rooms, and put the display behind it.

Given all the components involved in the operation, Saral also wanted the mirror to look as “normal” as possible, eventually opting to create a special frame for the electronics which were also stripped down to their bare components.

In his bid to upcycle, he used old and recycled components for his project, like a 4-year-old laptop as the mirror’s ‘brains’ and a 6-year-old computer display.

His efforts were most recently recognised by Amazon themselves, as he clinched the Grand Prize in Amazon’s worldwide voice-activated challenge.

While that already seems like no mean feat for someone who hasn’t even hit his 20s, Saral actually started his journey in the maker movement when he was just 12.

“I Was Heavily Inspired To Be That Guy In Tech-Based TV Shows”

Saral in his younger days

Saral’s interest in robotics and technology started at a young age, when he tinkered with toys and appliances he found while wandering around his home.

“With a spark in my eyes and a screwdriver in my hand, I would hunt for the warranty tag and promptly stab it to reveal the screws that hid treasure: magical Printed Circuit Boards, the twisted cables, gold traces, and electronic components all far beyond my understanding,” he recalled.

“However, I never knew how to re-assemble [them] and always left a mess of broken tech!”

Eventually breaking enough things led me to understand how things went together and gave me the curiosity and the knowledge to transition from a ‘breaker’ to a ‘maker’.

Saral admitted that while he didn’t have any specific role models growing up, he was “heavily inspired to be that guy in tech-based tv shows or movies”.

For one, Iron Man served as a movie inspiration for him, and he even created his own 3D-printed Iron Man gauntlet with a motor that helps the user lift more weight than their arm usually could on its own – “just like the movie”.

Saral’s own 3D-printed Iron Man glove

Someone he looks to as a role model now, however, is Adam Savage from the MythBusters series.

“Even after his time at MythBusters, he shares his […] DIY/making passion on YouTube for free for millions of people to watch,” he quipped.

He is extremely passionate is spreading the maker movement through educating the public on what it means to DIY, a concept very dear to my heart. His actions inspired me to start my own robotics education company in Singapore, Tinker Spark.

Just like Savage, Saral revealed that starting a YouTube channel is a future goal of his, and wishes to kickstart it with videos of inventions and learnings of his Tinker Spark students.

An Accomplished Maker And Mentor

Saral Tayal

Currently serving his National Service, Saral is enlisted to start his term at Carnegie Mellon University to study robotics and engineering in 2019.

However, a university education seems to pale in comparison to the plethora of experience he has garnered over the years.

At 14, he joined XPC, one of the first ‘makerspaces’ in Singapore sponsored by hardware chain Home-Fix after his father read about it in the newspaper.

“My room [then] was a huge mess of wooden shavings, foam cuttings, and stripped wires,” he said.

“[So,] the makerspace would be a perfect opportunity for me to learn in a more professional environment, and move some of the mess I made with my inventions away from home!”

He then contacted the people at XPC, who were initially “shocked to see someone so young be interesting in making”, but  “happily accepted” his request to intern there and help them develop their space.

Image Credit: XPC

During his time in XPC, he also served as a mentor for fellow builders and students, an experience he enjoyed thoroughly.

“The best part of mentoring fellow builders is definitely their reactions when they realise their ability to do what they thought attainable by professionals.”

Most people think DIY, electronics, and making requires a degree in engineering or something similar, but when they prove that notion wrong by creating an amazing project with their own hands, it is extremely powerful and empowering.

While he’s not mentoring anyone currently, he continues to share his project updates on his blog, “so the whole global community could build alongside me and redefine what they thought was possible”.

Some of Saral’s blog posts

“To date, I have reached nearly a quarter million views on my blog,” he beamed.

Using His Knowhow For Good

In 2016, Saral interned at local startup QwikFab for 3 months during his summer vacation.

Having built his own 3D printer a few months before, his time at QwikFab helped him “learn from a startup moving incredibly fast in the cutting edge of 3D printing technologies”.

“Sometimes I was also put in charge of 3D prints or 3D designing parts for large clients. They really valued my opinions and didn’t treat me like a child in high school without a professional degree,” he recalled.

Saral also worked with AIG for media creation during his winter vacation, and through that stint, learnt how how to produce, shoot, and edit videos – a skill he is currently honing with his personal videos.

With that, he dished some advice for students who are looking for internships, but are too intimidated to apply for them.

“I have never once been invited to intern at a place – I have always approached companies and people to let me intern with them!”

Most people are too afraid that they are too young or don’t have the appropriate qualifications to intern, however that’s the reason [why] interns [should] learn from the company.

As busy as he has been with school and internships, Saral has also taken time out to help out in various causes.

For example, he helped out at Imran Repair, after meeting its founder and “instantly clicking with his mission to repair broken electronics rather than buying new electronics in a shift to combat consumerism and forced obsolescence”.

His time there also taught him more about how consumer electronics were designed, and provided him “valuable knowledge on safety and manufacturing standards vs. one time prototypes that [he] was making”.

When Saral was doing his high school education at a boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas, his classmates and himself also teamed up with the Liter of Light initiative after realising that there were multiple villages without access to electricity near their school.

Image Credit: Liter Of Light

“We built solar-powered street and home lights that upcyled waste 2-liter water bottles as building materials for the lights themselves. It was a fantastic project that allowed me to use my engineering skills for a social cause.”

And he’s not stopping there.

Saral shared that his next cause is “definitely targeted” towards empowering people through engineering.

I want to create a platform for anyone to have access to basic education so they can help solve problems that plague their families and communities.

To Young Makers: “Go Out There And Try”

Most recently, Saral was involved in Maker Faire Singapore, part of the month-long Singapore Science Festival happening from 17 Aug to 8 Sept 2018.

Featuring around 1,000 makers like himself, Saral shared that he had “an extremely positive Maker Faire experience” this year.

“I’ve been involved with the Maker Faire for many years now and have always participated as a volunteer or as an intern at a participating company. This year however, I hosted my own booth to showcase my projects.”

Saral demonstrating how the smart mirror works to ‘Bus Uncle’ Abhilash Murthy

“Both my smart mirror and 3D printer toolchange projects were posted on my blog, [but] seeing people in person who had read about my project added another layer of fulfilment to my work.”

To end off, I asked Saral for words of advice he has for young makers like himself.

“The biggest tip I could give to a young maker is to go out there and try.”

Young makers are often scared of all the companies and advanced makers who show [off] very technical projects, [but] they are often the ones who come up with the most creative and innovative solutions and motivate more kids to participate in turn.

“Even if you don’t have a project of your own to showcase, young makers should try to volunteer and immerse themselves in the supporting and loving community of making.”

I’d like to thank Saral for his time!

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