The first generation of people locators packs an impressive amount of technology into a three-ounce package. Wherify Wireless makes a watch-like GPS locator for parents to be able to track down their kids. More Here

Global positioning tech watches out for loved ones
Daniel S. Levine
By the end of this year, Wherify Wireless Inc. hopes to market a playful-looking child’s watch. Even though it tells time, its real purpose is provide the whereabouts of the wearer 24 hours a day by using global positioning satellite, or GPS, technology.

The first generation of the personal locator, which packs an impressive amount of technology into a three-ounce package, seems a tad out of proportion on a small child’s wrist. It functions as pager, features a 911 button for emergencies, is cut-resistant and can be locked in place. In less than a minute, a parent can pinpoint the whereabouts of their child within a few feet by logging onto the web or calling a Wherify operator.

“It’s a bit bulky. It’s taken us three years to get it to where it is now,” said Timothy Neher, president and founder of Redwood Shores-based Wherify. “You have basically a fully functioning cell phone in there and assisted GPS in the device, (and) two antennas and a battery. So, what we’ve got there is pretty amazing in the miniaturization we have, but we do know we can make it smaller.”

Wherify plans to sell the device to consumers for between $300 and $400. Depending on the level of service selected, the company will charge between $15 and $30 a month. The company expects not only to market the products to parents fearful of child abductors and molesters, but also to the adult children of Alzheimer’s patients and anyone else who may want to track the location of someone.

`Clearly a niche market’
The device is the first of hundreds the company wants to sell that will use its service platform. Similarly, San Francisco-based Televoke Inc. is working with a growing list of partners to develop products for its competing location-based services platform.

“The challenge we set out for ourselves is to be able to support a large number of subscribers, running on a number of partners’ services concurrently, with very high reliability and availability,” said Bob Kimball, CEO of Televoke, which is letting its partners develop new applications and hardware for its service platform. “We think the industry as a whole has challenges to get the device geometry and power consumption to where it can be deployed for personal applications.”

The two companies represent what some consider the forefront of an explosion in such products, brought about by falling prices and the growing ubiquity of three necessary technologies — GPS, wireless communications and the Internet. But big questions remain about the viability of these products, the consumer demand for them and the business models that will allow companies to deliver services profitably.

“Knowing the location for people is clearly a niche market — Alzheimer’s, children, people at risk, prisoners. There are all kinds of people you want to keep track of, but can they make a really big market out of it?” asked Rich Luhr, director of technology strategy for the wireless industry consultancy Shosteck Group. “Will it become a mass market thing, where every kid in America will have one of these things hanging off of his bicycle? That’s a bigger question. Nobody knows.”

The list of products already available or on the drawing board is growing fast. As companies miniaturize the technology and increase the battery life of devices, new products become possible. Companies now use or plan to use small GPS devices to track packages, servers, laptops, people and pets.

Much of the early consumer products to hit the market have focused on automobile security, in part because they can be larger than personalized devices and they avoid issues of battery life because cars can provide a power source. Such devices can be used not only to locate a stolen vehicle, but they can be programmed to notify the owner any time a certain speed is exceeded (great for monitoring teenage drivers), used to lock or unlock the car doors or even disable the engine if a car is stolen.

San Francisco-based SecuraTrak sells an automotive security system for $479 with a $120-per-year service plan using Televoke’s platform. Even though the device, about the size of two cell phones, is designed for automobiles, the company says hikers, bikers and skiers already toss it into their backpacks in case they get lost. The company plans to come out with a smaller product next month to serve as a personal locator, but James McGibney, chairman and CEO of SecuraTrak, said the wireless network a company uses will have a lot to do with how useful a device proves to be.

Who will pay?

While other providers such as Wherify are using the same PCS networks used for mobile phones, Televoke’s platform uses Aeris.Net’s Microburst technology that covers more than 98 percent of the U.S. population and 100 percent of the population in Canada and Mexico. The network makes use of an underutilized portion of cellular channels.

McGibney said the PCS networks allow for smaller devices, but his company decided to go with Aeris.Net for its reliability.

“You will get a smaller device, but would you rather have a smaller device with less coverage or a larger device with better coverage? SecuraTrak leans more toward reliability.”

Moving forward, the Shosteck Group’s Luhr said the big challenge for businesses will be to find a model where people will actually pay for the services associated with the devices, and not just buy the devices. “It’s easy to say what won’t work, it’s not so easy to say what will work,” he said.

He points to the OnStar system that now comes with some luxury automobiles. Though a year’s service is usually provided to the car buyer, Luhr said renewal rates for the system are low.

“These are low renewal rates for people who can clearly afford the service. It doesn’t bode well for the industry,” he said. “The catch continues to be — will people pay for the service?”

Daniel S. Levine covers technology for the San Francisco Business Times.