Walk on the wired side
The asset’s coordinates are longitude -0.098610, latitude 51.519699. At least that’s what the read-out on my computer screen says.
I’ve never heard my son, Robbie, described as an asset before, but I guess there’s a first time for anything.
Two minutes later, I get an update. He’s barely moved, since he’s walking at an unbelievable 1,76km/h. It’s definitely him. No one else can dawdle like that. I switch the screen over to a Google Earth satellite map and follow his return to the building.
Robbie is wearing one of the first GPS tracker jackets, launched this week in the United Kingdom by Blade Runner, the clothing manufacturer that specialises in equipment for the police and security services and which recently brought out the first school uniform in slash-proof Kevlar, in partnership with Asset Monitoring Solutions (AMS), a market leader in tracking and security technologies.
And he’s impressed. Not so much with my ability to know where he’s been, but with the jacket itself. He’d been decidedly sniffy when I’d shown him the promotional picture of a three-year-old wrapped up in a twee puffa jacket.
“I’m not wearing that,” he announced. When you’re nearly 12, street cred counts for a great deal. But the jacket that turns up is black, urban and edgy, with a sewn-in iPod holder. He nods: “Nice.”
But it’s the technology that is likely to appeal to the people who are buying it, because at £250 (about R3 300)—or an extra £80 (R1 000) if you want it with a Kevlar lining—and a monthly £10 (R130) satellite tracking charge, it is not cheap. It is simple, though. It runs off a web-based system, so there’s no software to load or minimum PC requirements; you just get your own user login and you’re up and running. Or walking very slowly, if you’re Robbie.
The small rechargeable device—it has a 15-hour battery—fits neatly into a pouch inside the jacket. You switch it on when you leave the house and what you get is nothing less than the ability to know where someone is, within four square metres, anywhere in the world. You can watch them move, check where they’ve been and get updates every 10 seconds. You don’t even need to be permanently logged on to your computer, as you can have email alerts sent to your Blackberry or SMSs to your cellphone.
It sounds ideal for a certain type of over-protective, borderline paranoiac parent with too much time on their hands, and Adrian Davis, Blade Runner managing partner, admits that is part of the target market. “There are parents who are very concerned about their child’s safety,” he says diplomatically, “and this will give them peace of mind.”
But he is also keen to point out there are wider applications. “If your kids are doing adventure sports, like snowboarding, you can always know where they are. And if they get into difficulties, they can set off an alarm that tells you their location.”
The GPS can be set up in almost any way you like. You can geo-fence it so you only get alerts if your “asset” steps outside a certain boundary—the school, for instance—and you can set a curfew so it sets off an alarm after a particular time. Yet despite these Big Brother overtones, Martin Taylor, sales director of AMS, suggests the benefits can cut both ways.
“Kids want their independence,” he says, “and parents might be more willing to allow them to go out more on their own if they could check up on where they were from time to time and know they would be immediately informed if there was any trouble.”
There has also been interest from companies whose workers spend a lot of time in potentially hazardous situations alone. There is one small snag: if you take the jacket off or lose it, the whole thing is pointless. Then again, with the amount of stuff Robbie has lost, I’d probably be less interested in knowing where he was than locating his clothes anyway.
Playing safe: The tracking technology boom
Tracker developed by Globalpoint Technologies that relies on technology pioneered by the British Ministry of Defence to track and monitor anything to within a few metres. The device, which is about the size of a cellphone, can fit into a pocket or schoolbag and has high-sensitivity GPS, which allows it to be used indoors. Parents log on to a website using a secure password to monitor their child’s whereabouts.
United States company Wherify offers a multicoloured device, worn as a wristwatch, which operates in a similar way to the Personal Companion.
A child-safety monitoring system from Connect Software that can be sewn into clothing. Smaller than a domino, the device emits radio waves and works with a reader to monitor a child’s movement. It raises an alarm when a child moves outside a certain range.
Loc8tor plus can be used for a number of children at the same time. It consists of four tags the size of a stamp and a homing device the size of a television remote. If a child wanders outside the preset area, the tag sends an alarm signal to the handset. Flashing arrows direct you to the missing child, up to 183m away.
Professor Kevin Warwick, of Reading University, developed technology that made it possible for children to have a chip inserted under the skin, allowing them to be tracked.
—Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007