Hats off! | Daily News

Hats off!

The recreation of the ‘Sorting Hat’ worn by Harry Potter in the popular film series
The recreation of the ‘Sorting Hat’ worn by Harry Potter in the popular film series


More than two decades since the first Harry Potter book was published, the boy wizard continues to cast a spell on the cultural landscape. Not only did it spawn a readership and movie franchises, but it also helped shape the millennial generation. Millions of people reaching young adulthood have never known a world without Harry Potter. Many more who have grown up with the books still get regular doses of J K Rowling via social media. Twenty years on from the first book, it looks like no-one’s going to be saying “Avada Kedavra” to Harry Potter anytime soon.

Taking this fact to heart a group of undergraduates from the Robotics and Intelligence Systems (RIS) Laboratory at the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Applied Sciences, and University of Sri Jayewardenepura revived Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat for a project. Led by Dr Ravindra de Silva students Adhisha Gammanpila, Asela Wijesinghe, Tehani Wanniarachchi, Viraji Amarajeewa, and Dovini Jayasinghe had brainstormed for ideas for their course unit, Human-Robot Interactions’. Their output, a robot which they developed to take the shape of the ‘Sorting Hat’ in the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise, would not only revolutionize medical history but also helped them put Sri Lanka on the global innovation map.

“Autism is a neurological disease which doesn’t allow children to interact or express themselves and their emotions. Therefore, as a solution we developed a social robot with an appearance of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movie to help them overcome these barriers. The Sorting Hat which we created also reads the brainwaves. That data can be further analyzed for various medical purposes,” Adhisha Gammanpila explained.

Clinching first place at the International Conference on Social Robotics 2019
Pictures by Ruwan de Silva

He noted that the product was an outcome of Dr de Silva’s influence in motivating his students to look at international level projects like those done by MIT, Stanford or Harvard.

“There was also a lot of hype about brainwave sensors. All these factors coupled with our imaginations and our childhood passion for Harry Potter contributed to reviving the Sorting Hat,” he added.

The team’s product was selected for the final round of the International Conference on Social Robotics 2019, held in Madrid, Spain, from November 26 to 29. They won first place in the Hardware category at the event. This was the first time that Sri Lanka had clinched an award at this event in which top universities across the globe take part.

“The global final round comprised 10 countries. Countries like USA, UK, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Japan made it to the final. We saw many products which were out of the box there. Most of them were presented by PhD students. Therefore we were a bit intimidated when we witnessed their output. I believe that we won because we also took a unique approach as a basis of our project,” Tehani Wanniarachchi opined.

She said that the project which won second place, a skeleton structure into which a toy like a teddy bear can be placed in, captured her interest. She says that this product enables the toy to move and interact with a child.

“It took us around seven to eight months to complete the project. Children are naturally close to fictional characters like Spiderman. Therefore they tend to respond more to such idols which are linked from their childhood. We used such research details to develop the Sorting Hat,” Adhisha expressed adding that the product is ideally suited for a grade five or six student.

He notes that all the units used in the device are safe for long term use. A lot of startup companies have shown interest in the product and it already has a lot of demand from the public.

“However it should be noted that the product acts as a mediator for autistic children to interact with the society and helps them channel their emotions. It is not a solution or a medicine. Nor does it detect autism,” he stressed.

Noting the difficulties faced by the team on developing this innovation Adhisha said, “There are a lot of tutorials available on the web to construct robots but there is no such information for a product of this nature. Therefore, we had to start everything from scratch. Even finding a cloth to suit the look and feel of the Sorting Hat was a challenge.”

Queried on what they learnt at the International Conference on Social Robotics 2019 Adhisha said that robotics has become a part and parcel of the lifestyle in most countries.

“This made us realize that adaptations of this nature are possible,” he said.

He notes that it is important to have one’s own vision to taste success.

“Our team has always engaged in projects which are different from the rest. We share the mindset of wishing to create an impact. The demand we get from the public drives us to continue our work on this product to make it practically available for them to use in the future.”

The project was also exhibited at the ‘Innovate Sri Lanka 2019’ exhibition which was held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), organised by the Innovation, Invention and Venture Creation Council (IIVCC) of USJ.

Speaking about how the students were inspired to work on projects Dr Ravindra de Silva noted that 15 years of experience in Japan helped him realize that rather than giving an examination paper to grade students, it is more worthwhile to engage them in practicals by getting them to do a project.

Adhisha’s ambition is to build a technological empire and to inspire scientific education in others. Tehani strives to use technology to create a better tomorrow for children.

Asked if there are any international personalities he admires, Adhisha named SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and American business magnate Steve Jobs as his role models.

“Musk builds things out of his childhood like the Cybertruck. They have worked to make their vision a reality. They create things and also creates a business value out of them as well,” he pointed out.

The team is grateful to their project supervisor Dr. Ravindra de Silva, all the lecturers at the Department of Computer Science and Statistics, the Innovation, Inventions and Venture Creations Council (IIVCC), the Vice Chancellor Prof. Sampath Amaratunge and the Dean of Faculty of Applied Sciences Prof. Laleen Karunanayake for all their support and guidance extended towards making the project a success.

“The product will take around six more months to complete development. The award was won in the middle of the project. We look forward to publishing the research papers within the coming months,” Adhisha noted adding that only after that they would be able to focus on finding a means for the product to reach the public.

“I have met some student whose names have been under the Forbes 30 under 30 list. They think big, start small and have worked very fast. Follow their example because that is the motto you need to succeed in this sector,” are Adhisha’s words of wisdom to youth who are looking to make a name in the innovations field.

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