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Sunday, November 3, 2002

Technology

Location device for kids has flaws
Gizmos

By Mike Langberg
Knight Ridder

Wherify Wireless, a start-up in Redwood City, Calif., has created a truly groundbreaking product: the world's first satellite location device designed for children.

Groundbreaking, unfortunately, is not the same thing as proven or affordable. There are several reasons why I wouldn't recommend buying this $399 product, even though I'm convinced personal location technology will become common within a few years.

Before I delve into the negative, however, I'll start with the good news.

The Wherify GPS Personal Locator (www.wherify.com) looks like a chubby plastic wristwatch, available in ''cosmic purple'' or ''galactic blue,'' and is designed to lock on the wrists of children ages 4 to 12.

Detecting signals from the Global Positioning System network of satellites, the locator can calculate its longitude and latitude with pinpoint accuracy -- erring by no more than 30 feet in my informal tests. Location data can be retrieved by parents -- or law-enforcement officers in an emergency -- in a few minutes from a Web page or by calling a Wherify operator through a toll-free number.

The benefits are obvious. Lost children could be found instantly with Wherify; the device could also be a literal life-saver in those few but highly publicized and tragic child abduction cases.

There are also clear nonemergency applications. Parents of a footloose 10-year-old who's late for dinner can immediately find out if the child is skateboarding at a local park or hanging out at a friend's house.

Of course, this new technology could be threatening. Even children deserve some basic privacy rights, and the same tracking concept behind Wherify could be abused -- such as by employers demanding to know at all times where their employees are.

But I'm a technology optimist, and I believe we'll work out appropriate laws and social etiquette to make location tracking both useful and acceptable.

Wherify began shipping its first product in limited quantities Sept. 30. For now, the locator is only sold through Wherify's Web site or by phone (877-562-2831) and customers must wait about a month for delivery.

Beyond the purchase price of $399, the locator requires a service plan from Wherify priced from $24.95 to $49.95 a month with a minimum one-year contract. The service provides what Wherify calls a ''locate,'' a request for a child's locator to report its position. Sprint PCS provides the wireless connection, a fact I uncovered only by asking -- Wherify mysteriously does not give this crucial piece of information anywhere on its Web site or in its product literature.

The $24.95 plan provides 20 locates a month through the Web and three locates by calling Wherify operators. Additional locates are 95 cents each. At the upper end of the price range, the $49.95 plan provides 80 Web and five phone locates, with additional locates costing 50 cents each.

Parents can electronically lock the locator to prevent accidental removal by the child or deliberate removal by a kidnapper. The locator can also be unlocked remotely, by Web or phone, a handy feature when the child needs to swim or shower.

The child can also initiate a 911 alert, complete with location data, by pressing two of the three buttons on the locator's face.

The company said it didn't have enough units available to lend me one, but Bob Stern, a helpful spokesman, agreed to meet me with a locator at two different spots: the Hillsdale Shopping Center, a mall in San Mateo, Calif., and University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, Calif.

When the Wherify locator worked, the results were impressive.

Stern and I first sat down at the Starbucks coffee shop inside Hillsdale, near a window where the locator could easily pick up both GPS and Sprint PCS signals. Using my laptop computer, I went online and ordered a locate from Wherify's Web site. Within two minutes, I was looking at a street map with the image of a red pushpin at the corner of the building where I sat. Clicking a tab on the top of the screen, I could switch to an aerial photo. Zooming in, I could see the building, driveway and parking lot -- with the push pin about 30 feet from my actual position.

In downtown Palo Alto, Stern and I went to the Starbakes cafe -- a name perhaps chosen in hopes of confusion with Starbucks -- and sat at a table in back, about 25 feet from the street. This was a spot where GPS shouldn't work, because GPS signals are weak enough to be blocked by most roofs and even thick tree cover. But the Wherify locator once again produced an accurate fix; when I called Wherify's operator, she correctly put me on the 200 block of University Avenue.

I also dragged Stern to spots where I knew the locator would have problems getting either GPS or cellular reception, including the food court on Hillsdale's lower level and the basement lobby of Palo Alto City Hall.

In these places, Wherify fell down. The locator failed to report its position and didn't clearly communicate why -- because of cellular or GPS failure -- through the Web page or Wherify operators.

When the locator can't get a GPS signal but can reach Sprint PCS, the Wherify system is supposed to offer a ''tower locate'' as a backup, giving the street address of the nearest Sprint PCS base station. In several attempts, however, I never got a tower locate.

I'm willing to give Wherify the benefit of the doubt here; the tower locate problem is probably a software glitch that can be fixed. No wireless system is guaranteed to function everywhere at all times; anyone using location tracking hardware will have to adjust to the limitations of both GPS and cellular networks.

But there are other caution flags waving around Wherify:

  • Cost. I love my 2-year-old daughter Sara and want to do everything reasonable to protect her, but I'm not prepared to pay $400 up front for a location tracking device and a minimum of $300 a year for service. I'm fairly sure prices will come down substantially in the next few years. I'd be willing to spend perhaps $100 up front and no more than $10 a month for service.
  • Warranty. Wherify provides only a 90-day warranty for the locator and specifically exempts damage ''from external causes such as collision with an object, or from ... sand (and) dirt.'' This hardly seems like a vote of confidence from the manufacturer. After all, what 8-year-old doesn't regularly collide with objects while rolling in sand or dirt?
  • Background. Wherify Wireless is a privately held company that claims to have raised $25 million. But the company won't say how much of that money is still available, or identify any of its investors. Timothy Neher, the company's 36-year-old founder and chief executive officer, has no previous experience in the wireless business.

    In January 2001, Wherify Wireless announced the locator with a flourish at the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, promising to deliver a 2-ounce device that summer. The company subsequently set several later shipping dates and missed them, finally delivering the locator a year behind schedule at twice the promised weight.

    Neher told me the delays were due to extensive testing and reflect the company's commitment to quality.

    Still, I'm concerned that Wherify won't share any information demonstrating its financial health and has a track record of broken promises. Buyers could be left with nothing more than a $400 wristwatch if Wherify shuts down.

    This issue is particularly relevant because Wherify's only direct competitor is clearly in deep financial trouble.

    Digital Angel (www.digitalangel.net) of South St. Paul, Minn., sells a GPS locator intended primarily for adults at $399, with service plans starting at $29.95 a month. A company executive told me only about 100 units have been shipped.

    The result of merging together several companies that make a variety of location-tracking products, Digital Angel is burdened with heavy losses and is dogged by controversy. The company's auditing firm quit in May -- never a good sign -- and Digital Angel reported losses of $24 million on sales of $17 million for the first half of 2002. The company's shares, traded on the American Stock Exchange, have plummeted from $15 in early 2000 to about $2.50.

    All of which leaves me believing more in the future of location tracking technology than the future of the first companies offering personal locators.

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