We’ve all experienced the fight or flight response: heart pounding, trembling legs, sweaty palms.
It’s your body’s way of saying, “Hey, it’s time to tell someone you aren’t safe.”
What isn’t guaranteed when you’re in danger however, is whether you can reach for your smart phone and dial 911. So three University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign alums are working on a wearable that can do that for you.
Their wearable, called Anansi, will integrate sensors into a wearable worn on the wrist that can measure an individual’s physiological parameters, and when those levels are breached, the device will start vibrating. You have seven seconds to touch a button to stop the device in case there isn’t an emergency. But if there is, the device alerts emergency services and sends your GPS location. Though still in the early stages of development (they’re developing their MVP now with the aim of a beta test next fall), solutions like Anansi indicate the next tipping point in wearables: autonomous devices that might be able to know when we’re in danger before we do.
“A lot of the women I interact with were brought up to be these really strong women with great role models in our life that encouraged us to dream big and go out there and achieve our goals,” said Nikita Parikh, co-founder of Anansi. “But what we found is when we step out onto the streets we don’t feel the same…we don’t feel as safe.”
Parikh, who just graduated from UIUC with a degree in computer engineering in May, recalled ways that she and her female friends would keep each other safe: calling her best friend on a walk home, downloading safety apps that track a walk home. But it felt like an extra step that could mean the difference between safety and danger. Why couldn’t there be something that automatically detected danger?
Parikh enlisted fellow UIUC alums Hollis Carroll (an industrial designer who’s worked on assault prevention tech previously), and Matthew Vanek (a software engineer) to start working through solutions. Though there are plenty of apps and wearable that allow people to press a button to get help when they’re in danger, there’s nothing that can automatically sense danger, an important distinction given there isn’t always time to reach for a device. So they created a prototype in a senior design class run by professor Scott Carney, and were accepted to Chicago Innovation Exchange’s Summer@CIE program. The team will stay headquartered in CIE as part of the business incubator.
Parikh cautioned that they are still in development stage, but are taking the time to work through some of the potential pitfalls of automatic detection. For example, they will be sure the parameters for fight or flight response will be personalized, and they are integrating a variety of sensors that go beyond what you might see on a typical wearable.
“The whole reason we are creating our own wearable as opposed to integrating with an Apple watch or Fitbit, is because we need to be measuring more parameters than those devices do to make an accurate guess of when you’re in distress,” she said.
The team is also working with UIUC and UChicago campus safety to develop the tech with emergency contacts in mind–preventing false alarms is a concern they want to be sure to address. They have a demo set with UIUC in November.
Though they declined to share a photo or a mock up of the device just yet, Parikh said it will be worn on the wrist and resemble jewelry, given their initial target market is women. “It’s easy to get a lot of data by making measurements on the wrist, and from an aesthetic standpoint, people wear watches and bracelets,” she said. “We want [people] to wear this, not just because they want to be safe but because this is a beautiful product.”
The idea of women’s safety combined with tech isn’t a new idea. From the apps that Parikh (and many other women) have downloaded to key fob alert systems such as Chicago’s Guard Llama, innovators understand that tech provides a new opportunity to bring safety to our fingertips. However, creating devices targeted at women to keep women safe don’t solve the overarching problem of assault: why continue to put the onus on victims, rather than devote energy to preventing crime in the first place?
“It’s unfortunate that there is the need for something like this, and we hope that it will create more dialogue and conversations on other ways to make people feel safer, not just women,” admitted Parikh. “But the fact of the matter is that there are times when you are in danger and you need help. We’re there to make that happen.”
Beyond that, she pointed out that this product reflects the continuing evolution of wearables. As sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and chips in smart watches and fitness bands get smarter, they will be able to measure and detect changes in our physiology and environment when we aren’t even paying attention.
“We know that this whole safety at a click of a button is obsolete,” she said. “We think automatic safety is going the the future. We expect to be creating it.”