On October 21 this year, Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrived into a world of wearable technology, unmanned drones and head-mounted displays.
In many ways, futurists say the 2015 of reality is more technologically advanced than the world that Marty and the madcap inventor Doc landed in when they travelled in a time machine from the year 1989 in the film Back to the Future Part II.
The Dubai-based tech innovator Sharad Bachani, 35, might agree.
Recent products unveiled by Merlin Digital – the company he runs with his brother Rohit that sells and develops innovative creations – include immersive 3D, a virtual reality-based headset device that allows users to walk in a parallel world, “which could be very close to a real world, because computer graphics are very advanced these days”, says Mr Bachani, who created this update to Google’s Cardboard glasses.
Other new creations include the company’s Smart Wallet that can alert the owner of its whereabouts if it is stolen.
Last year the duo were asked to develop an app for the UAE government, allowing tourists to take a virtual tour of Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque, without actually setting foot in it. And Sharjah’s government has commissioned them to create the Sharjah VR App, a 360° guide to the emirate.
Although the home-grown business also finds and distributes the latest innovations from around the world, Sharad, the older brother, is the mastermind behind its inventions.
He was given his first computer, a Commodore 64, in 1992 when he was 12, three years after Back to the Future Part II came out. By the time he reached 15, his passion for building computers had turned into a “semi business”.
“By 16 I literally had to be pushed out of the house because there were so many computer parts that mum and dad would have to step over,” he recalls. “I moved to a shop in Bur Dubai doing what I was doing at home but now under this official banner, SSS Electronics.”
Rohit later joined the company when it relocated to the Al Ain Centre, also in Bur Dubai, selling desktop computers built by Sharad.
“We used to buy the components and assemble the computers,” says Rohit, 33.
The brothers found the computer industry a crowded market and quickly learnt to diversify into a technology-based electronics company. The brand name was changed to Merlin Electronics in 2001 and later Merlin Digital – named after a book Sharad had read about the mythical wizard Merlin.
“We wanted to connect with the idea that these were magical products and we had a little logo – ‘add a little magic to your life’ with a small hat on the Merlin logo,” says Sharad.
While Sharad loves to create, he has learnt not to waste time on developing products already in the market.
“Twenty years ago I was trying to make my own MP3 player, as music is one of my biggest passions,” he says. “The MP3 format had just come out and I wanted to come up with a device that would allow MP3s to be portable.”
When he found a company in Korea doing just that he offered to help market the product.
“They didn’t speak much English at their factory, but I made a few phone calls, got a few samples, took a leap of faith and sent them money to send the product over. Three years before the iPod came out, we had an MP3 player with an FM transmitter, which was magical because no one had thought of it in this market,” says Sharad.
The product was Merlin Digital’s first big break and helped them to distribute to major retailers such as Al Futtaim, Plug Ins and Dubai Duty Free. The company now has contracts with Virgin Megastore, as well as three of its own stores in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Today the brothers work with a chain of suppliers across the Far East as well as some in the United States and Europe.
“These are companies that have great manufacturing processes in place, great product ideas, but they don’t have the distribution networks of a Sony or Samsung,” says Sharad. “They look for people like us to market these products for them. We now have a strong channel in the Middle East and we are developing one in Mumbai and a few other Indian cities. We also have franchisees in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Moscow and Singapore.”
While they are happy to market the ideas of others, Sharad continues to develop his own concepts; he currently has patents for two of his inventions.
His latest is a sensor and virtual reality headset that measures your heart rate variability and projects scenic imagery and guidance on the headset depending on the sensor’s results. He is also working on a new solar sunshade fan cooler, with a patent pending.
The brothers say it is an exciting time to be introducing the world to new technological innovations.
“Everything is changing so quickly, and it’s getting better,” says Sharad. “Before the iPhone came out eight years ago, not much was happening. Since then we’ve been living through these years of unbelievable innovations.”
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