Kamis, 03 Januari 2008

GPS gadget Spot can save your hide, for a price (USATODAY.com)

Im hesitant to come down too hard on a gadget that might help save your life. Still, the Spot Satellite Messenger Ive been checking out could have been easier to figure out, and more reliable.

Targeted at serious backpackers, boaters, hunters and other committed outdoor enthusiasts, Spot is a chunky, 7-ounce personal tracker whose main purpose is to bail you out of trouble. The product - it looks like a bright orange PDA on steroids - taps into Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to determine your whereabouts. Then if you get into a pickle, Spot, at the press of a button, will transmit your longitude, latitude and a preprogrammed text or e-mail message to emergency 911 authorities and/or your loved ones. Folks can view your location on Google Maps. Alas, you have no way of knowing if your cry for help has been received.

At $170 for the device, on top of a $100 annual subscription, Spot isnt cheap. But similar "personal locator beacons," or PLBs, may cost $400 or more. Spot claims it keeps costs down because of its proprietary low-power satellite technology.

Spot is meant to work even in areas where your cellphone wont function, under various environmental extremes - at elevations of up to 21,000 feet and at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It floats and is waterproof, too, but wont do you any good if it ends up buried in snow. The device requires a clear view of the sky.

Spot can operate in virtually all of North America, Europe and Australia, and portions of South America, northern Africa and northeastern Asia, as well as thousands of miles offshore. It failed at times in the, um, wilds of Manhattan and northern New Jersey, even as I sat uncovered in the stands of Giants Stadium. Tall buildings often block GPS signals.

Products that provide peace of mind are more common these days. GMs OnStar in-vehicle security system can rescue you when your car breaks down. Kid trackers are built into certain cellphones.

Spot is different. Its a one-way device that doesnt actually let you talk to another person.

The company behind the product - Spot Inc., a start-up in Milpitas, Calif., owned by Globalstar (GSAT) - is certainly using jarring selling tactics. "Live to tell about it" is one of the statements plastered on the products packaging. Another reads: "Opening this box is the first step to making sure you dont come home in one."

Spot is sold online and at leading outdoor specialty retailers. It only recently became available and will be among the myriad gizmos showcased at next weeks Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Heres a closer look:

•PICKING YOUR OPTIONS. The first thing you must do is visit the findmespot.com website to activate the device and choose a subscription plan. The basic $100 annual plan gives you the ability to summon 911 to dispatch emergency responders to your location. The 911 transmissions are sent to Geos Alliance, an international emergency response and security firm. The same plan also lets you send a brief "Im OK" e-mail and/or text message to predesignated friends or an "I need help" message to your contacts.

For an additional $50 a year, people can track your progress through Google Maps. The device will update your location every 10 minutes.

An extra $7.95 buys you a "search-and-rescue" benefit through Geos, to pay for a helicopter or other services used to lift you out of danger, up to $100,000.

•USING THE DEVICE. Spot could be friendlier, despite having only four buttons: Help, On/Off, OK and 911. The status lights that blink depending on the functions you have initiated are confusing.

You are meant to press the Help button for a non-threatening emergency and 911 when the situation is critical. Youll have to press and hold the 911 button for at least two seconds to prevent you from accidentally summoning such assistance when you dont need it. Geos will attempt to reach the police, Coast Guard, U.S. Embassy or other appropriate emergency responders during a 911 request.

Spot doesnt have a keyboard or keypad. Thats unfortunate, because you cannot compose a specific message that lets outsiders know the nature of your situation, should, say, your vehicle break down. Pressing the Help or OK buttons sends the generic text messages (up to 115 characters) you entered on Spots website prior to leaving on your journey.

•THE TECHNOLOGY. Though Spot relies on GPS to determine your whereabouts, it will attempt to send a distress message to your contacts even when it is unable to pinpoint your location. Hopefully, your family members or friends have a general idea where youre heading. Messages are transmitted via a commercial satellite network.

Spot can last about a year on fresh AA lithium batteries, the company says. In tracking mode, the unit can go about two weeks before you must replace the batteries, or up to a week in 911 mode.

Spot is a product you hope you will never have to rely on. But the company cites statistics that say more than 50,000 search-and-rescue missions are initiated in the USA yearly, with rescue workers often not knowing the exact location of the missing party. If youre in that dire condition, Spot might provide the lifeline to bail you out of danger.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com

eXTReMe Tracker