Teenage years are often a time of exploration for young people as they navigate their developing interests and passions. For many, this means consuming or participating in the latest trends in movies, gadgets, and games. However, with tech prodigies and enthusiasts, instead of simply consuming technology, many of them want to create technology. Last year, Africa birthed a lot of notable innovations created by the younger generation. “I want to be able to see my creations, feel them, and touch them,” says Lesley John, a 18-year-old embedded systems developer.
Lesley’s passion for building robots and gadgets started at a young age. By age 10, he was already babbling about pursuing a career as a scientist and a professor. He would spend hours tinkering with electronics, powered by nothing but his boundless curiosity and a handful of led batteries. That is until his sister told him about embedded systems.
Although Lesley was interested in robotics and hardware tech, he also had an interest in photo editing. Unknown to him, his photo editing skills had gotten the attention of a tech community in Bonny Island. “I didn’t even know Bonny Island had a tech community,” he says. One of the startups that had organized the tech community, reached out to him to be a volunteer at an event they were hosting event at the time. After the event, the founder of the startup asked Lesley and a couple of other tech enthusiasts for their opinions and suggestions about the event.
Lesley quickly suggested that the startup considered exploring hardware tech. “I told him that too many tech startups were focused on software and web development,” Lesley recalls. Lesley proceeded to tell the startup founder about his interests in robotics. “I never thought he would actually consider my thoughts,” he says. But he did. The startup ended up hosting a month-long boot camp for robotics, where they taught young minds like Lesley, basic robotics knowledge. Lesley signed up for the boot camp, and when it was over, Lesley and other enthusiasts who had performed well, were given basic kits.
Building a smart team and a smart trash can
Lesley wasn’t the only kid that had developed an interest in hardware tech. Two of his friends, 17-year-old Blessed who has been his classmate since they were both 10 and Bright, a neighbor who had developed an interest in electricals interning in a neighborhood electrical store, also had dreams of building projects. “When we were little, we talked a lot about building cool gadgets,” Lesley recalls. “One thing we talked about building was a device that could wirelessly change the sound emanating from any speaker device. We had wild ideas and were always eager to meet up and discuss amazing robots and gadgets we could build,” he adds.
The smart trash can was the first project Lesley and his team built. On the outside, the Smart trash can looks like your regular trash can, it performed the simple task of storing trash. But more than that, the trash can is embedded with microchips that allow it to operate using gestures. Whenever someone goes close to it, it opens by itself and closes once they drop the trash in it. It could also separate smaller trash pieces from the larger items. “The idea was for people to be able to recover items in case they did not intend to trash it,” says Lesley. Next, the team built a smart glove for blind people. The smart glove functions with embedded microchips that allow the glove detect objects away from the subject. The glove vibrates signaling the subject that they are close to a wall.
Lesley describes the Hi-wear as one of his favorite project so far. After a few months of not creating a project, the team was itching for a new invention. “We had to ask ourselves what other critical issues can we address?” recalls Lesley. They came up with the Hi-wear, a smart shoe designed to count the steps, measure the weight and can track the location of its user. It is connected to an App where the user can access all the data collected by the shoe. Creating the Hi-wear shoes required the boys to work with censors, a process that was new to them. “We had to do a lot of research,” recalls Bright Sunday. “But when we figured it out, it turned out great.”
The Hi-wear shoes has been a major accomplishment for the team. And so has the Air clicks, another innovation by the boys. The Air clicks is a device that uses ultrasonic sensors to execute specific commands and control over paired appliances, based on the presence of obstacles at various angles or distances. Much like the Hi-wear, Lesley had to venture into unfamiliar territory to bring this project to fruition. “I primarily code in C, but Python Python was required to interpret the information obtained by these sensors, so I dedicated myself to learning it. It took a month but I was able to master it,” says Lesley. The device is built like a hand band, hand bands, and when strapped around the user’s palms, provide them with control over paired appliances right at their fingertips. It can easily transform an ordinary laptop into a gesture-controlled device. Although the product does not have a specific range limit yet, for the team, the goal is to maximize its usability. “We were so happy because we managed to create a compact device that looks less like a prototype and more like a finished product. We went the extra mile to ensure its quality,” says Lesley.
The future of embedded systems and robotics in Nigeria
Lesley often gets messages from young people who are interested in hardware tech. Some of them tell him they had dreams of venturing into robotics but gave up when they had nowhere to learn. They often complain that most of the tutorials on YouTube are mostly hacks and not proper robotics. “This is important because robotics requires a lot of hands-on training,” Leslie tells me. “It has to be something that you physically like the personal experience,” he adds. Although most of the young people that reach out to Lesley have an interest in robotics, the lot of them end up pursuing a career in software tech hence a saturation of talents in industries like fintech. “I don’t blame them for opting to do software tech instead. Because if you don’t have the passion trying to learn on your own can be difficult, and consequently kill the passion. My passion didn’t die before I properly harnessed my skills because I was already a little talented in electricity, and I kept at it.”
It’s been 10 months since Lesley created his first embedded project with his teammates. Eventually, they hope they can start making money from their products. “We are striving to make the very best of these projects, to ensure they are appealing and usable,” he says. He plans on creating more devices that solve problems. “I want to make products that will have people talking about Nigeria,” says Lesley. “Everyday functional products that we can sell.” Yet, it would take a lot of determination to get there. “As much as we love building gadgets, it is stressful,” he says. “We look tired every single time of our lives. But we do enjoy creating these projects.”