Moments after the tsunami struck the shores of Sri Lanka in December, the Tidal Wave Rescue Center launched an effort to locate as many victims as possible through its cell phones.
The technology that was used was helpful but not exact.
The center sent text messages to each of the 10,252 international roaming phones in the area asking the recipient to call a toll-free number.
They received 4,269 responses and began staging rescue efforts. But the problem was how to identify the whereabouts of those who did not respond.
Next week, at the CTIA show in New Orleans, Siemens Communications and Wherify Wireless will be showing a phone that eases the task—so much that even home users will be able to track the whereabouts of the phone by accessing a protected Web page on the Internet.
"This is a brand-new space, and there is a tremendous amount of need," said Peter Fowler, vice president of sales for wireless modules at Siemens.
"Of all the products we support, this product has, by far, the most compelling business case. If you want to track your child or an elderly parent or a family member who has Alzheimers, you can simply utilize this device and no longer have to worry about their whereabouts."
In the enterprise space, too, he said, "theres a very big demand."
Although quite a number of location detection technologies already exist for the enterprise, most of those are trunk-mounted in vehicles.
"It will be interesting to see the applications when you have something that fits into a briefcase or a pocket."
The most obvious need is with international businesspeople traveling to areas of the world where terrorism, kidnapping and other personal security concerns exist.
"If you have businesspeople traveling in parts of the world where its possible they can be taken hostage and you want to provide them security, theres absolutely no reason why you wouldnt put one of these devices in a persons briefcase," said Fowler.
The phone, about the size of a business card, weighs 2.4 ounces and uses Siemens GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications)/GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) wireless technology with next-generation GPS locating technology enabled by Wherify.
The Wherifone features five programmable functions for one-touch dialing, including 911 emergency services and concierge services.
The Wherifone can be located through a secure Internet website, or by contacting the Wherify service center from any phone, which offers parents and family members peace of mind about their loved ones whereabouts while providing privacy and information security.
Currently, there is no de facto worldwide location standard to track traditional cell phones.
User location is determined through triangulation, bounding signals off towers in the areas where the phone was last heard to identify signal cross-points between the towers.
According to Fowler, GPS-based locator technology is not only much more available than triangulation methods, it is much more exact.
Using triangulation, cell towers essentially ping one another and determine how far a caller is from each tower by the time it takes to get a response.
"In Munich, where there are many cell towers within a relatively short distance, it might be as exact as within 300 meters," said Fowler, "but in Iowa where the towers are spread out and there is not a lot of capacity, it may be well over 1000 meters."
GPS service can identify exact locations.