Shawnee Mission graduate creates prosthetic that lets people play violin by flexing their toes

Akshay Dinakar with his Stradavinci prosthetic.

On a Friday evening, the students in the dorm where Akshay Dinakar serves as an RA were preparing for a night out on the town. But Dinakar, a Stanford junior and 2015 graduate of Shawnee Mission East, found himself drawn to an idea that had him sequestered inside his room.

Dinakar, an accomplished violist who has played with the National Youth Orchestra, had been thinking of ways to marry his passion for music with his study of product design. Over the previous couple years, he’d come up with a design for an electric violin that could be rendered by anyone with a 3-D printer. Now, he was wondering if it was possible to devise a prosthetic that would allow someone without an arm to play the violin or cello.

He grabbed a chunk of foam core and began modeling.

“People were going out to party and kept walking by and were like, ‘What is that?'” Dinakar recalls.

A couple weeks later, Dinakar had a functioning prototype completed — and a design ready to share with the world. The “Stradavinci” prosthetic arm allows a user to pull and flex a bow across a stringed instrument by using sensors attached to their toes.

“It started out just a pet project, with the idea of, ‘What can I do to redesign musical instruments to expand access?'” he said.

Earlier this month, he published the design files to the website Thingverse, where anyone with a 3-D printer can download a model of his creation and print it themselves. With the installation of Arduino motors and flex sensors, a user can have a functioning prosthetic in a matter of hours.

It’s not the only music-related design in Dinakar’s pipeline. He’s also working on an app that will coach young musicians on proper posture as they’re practicing, and a music stand that will stick to any surface.

“Music stands are never at the right height, and that can cause problems for posture and playing,” he said. “The Stikato is something you can stick to any surface, and make sure it’s in the right position.”

Dinakar said he’s planning to make product design his career after graduation — though he’s already gotten a head start on the professional world.

He’s launched his own product design firm, Chameleon, and is pursuing funding for a series of projects through the company.