Search for parking goes high tech

High school junior Vishnu Mano is creating a startup out of his parking app, Spotter.
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Vishnu Mano’s frustration over missing the start of a hockey game in downtown Grand Rapids eventually led to the creation of his parking app, Spotter. Courtesy Vishnu Mano

Vishnu Mano is only 16 years old but already has deployed his six years of programming experience to create an app that’s causing a stir.

A junior at City High/Middle School in Grand Rapids, Mano is founder and developer of Spotter, an app he created that helps drivers find the nearest open parking spot when paired with hardware he also designed and tested.

Mano won $5,000 at Start Garden’s Feb. 22 5×5 Night, besting the other founder finalists Sandy Jonick, U-Plant Landscape Designs, which provides digital landscape designs homeowners can plant themselves; Lisa McAree, NeedHours Network, an online network that connects students with employers in need of affordable home health care and volunteer services; Hanna Varner, Cohnect, an app that pairs likeminded travelers to promote cross-cultural understanding; and Matt Baker, Bambo, a social media and music streaming platform.

A go-getter who started coding in fourth grade, Mano said he “really got serious about it in fifth grade.” He was inspired to continue his passion by an elementary school teacher, Matthew Meyer, at Knapp Forest Elementary.

“(He) encouraged all of his students to start learning how to code at a young age,” Mano said. “… He always told me that coding is going to become like reading and writing in the future. When you’re in the workforce, it’s going to become a required skill, and the faster you can learn it, the (better) off you’ll be.

“After fifth grade, I continued working on some of the lessons he taught me and started branching out on other courses on YouTube and Coursera.”

Spotter began as a class project last year when Mano was a sophomore.

“We had to do a project called the personal project — it’s something that all sophomores at City have to do,” he said. “It’s a schoolyear-long project that students have to complete and write a report about, and the rules for it are very generic. Our school just wants us to find some sort of problem in our community and try to solve it or do something that would help us grow as a person or learn new skills.”

While brainstorming ideas, Mano remembered a moment from when he was in elementary school. He and his family missed the opening face-off of a Grand Rapids Griffins hockey game because they couldn’t immediately find a parking spot near Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids.

“I was pretty upset and hoped that there was some sort of solution, but with my short attention span in elementary school, I quickly forgot about the issue,” he said. “Then, during sophomore year while I was brainstorming ideas, this problem came up. I didn’t know initially what a solution would look like, but I knew that it wouldn’t be too difficult to try and solve.”

Mano’s first rough prototype consisted of a bulky, box-like sensor attached to his iPhone that cost $50 and wasn’t very practical.

“When I started this project, I had a lot of software experience, but no hardware experience. I didn’t know what a microcontroller was or how to manipulate a sensor using code. I was programming purely software apps and websites at that point,” he said. “When I began this project, one of my main goals to develop my own skills was to learn how these ultrasonic sensors and hardware components work.”

YouTube became his primary teacher, and testing was his refiner’s fire — quite literally.

“We had a couple prototypes catch fire,” Mano said, laughing. “I definitely learned my lesson there.”

After wrapping his class project, Mano couldn’t seem to shake the idea for Spotter, and he soon reached out to the city of Grand Rapids’ Mobile GR parking authority to see if the department would let him pitch his idea.

Justin Kimura, assistant Mobile GR director, eagerly agreed.

“I was just curious to see the feasibility of implementing a similar solution in Grand Rapids, and I was just expecting feedback or more ideas coming out of it, but … Mr. Justin Kimura gave me an internship with the city of Grand Rapids that summer to continue working on my project,” Mano said.

During the internship, Mano and the city devised a way to attach more streamlined ultrasonic sensors containing microcontrollers to a dozen parking spaces in the Ottawa Fulton ramp across from Van Andel. The sensors check, in real time, whether a parking space is open or occupied, then relay that data via microcontroller to the parking garage Wi-Fi, which then transmits the information to the app from the cloud.

After testing those prototypes, he realized 3D printing the sensors could reduce the cost of each unit to around $2, making them much more affordable for parking companies and municipal governments to install.

But because a parking garage would need to place a sensor in each space — a big project — Mano now is developing Spotter 2.0, which uses cameras that monitor 12 to 15 parking spots at a time to relay the same data to the app using machine learning.

“The biggest thing with cameras is that apart from parking ramps themselves, we can also implement them on on-street parking or even open lots, just because you don’t need infrastructure, you don’t need actual walls in order to set up a camera; all you would need is a light post or some tall building nearby to set up your camera,” Mano said.

Using the grant he won from Start Garden, Mano now is working with Ellis Parking and Mobile GR to test both solutions at the Midtown ramp at 130 Lyon St. NW and at the Ottawa Fulton ramp at 50 Ottawa Ave. NW.

He also is using part of the funding to hire a lawyer and a consultant to help him turn Spotter into a business.

“I’m just a high schooler who loves messing around with technology, and I don’t know the first thing about running an actual business,” he said. “A lot of the things, like copyrights, trademarks and intellectual property, I still need to learn about before I start doing this. 

“I’ve been 100% committed to Spotter for a while now … but in order to turn it into the business I’m hoping to turn it into, there is still a ways to go from an understanding perspective.”

Mano said once he has a better grasp of the parking industry, he hopes to expand Spotter into other areas, such as tapping into the sharing economy to allow homeowners to offer their driveway spaces for parking.

More information on Spotter is at spotterpark.wordpress.com.

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