Yeo Kee Jun, a Malaysian student, recently left his home together with his family in Jalan Klang Lama, Kuala Lumpur after their house was broken into six times over the last 12 years. The last three times had occurred over a period of four months. The family was also victim to six robberies, a mugging, and several car theft attempts.
None of these crimes, however, strike as much fear into the hearts of parents as kidnapping and murder cases. Late last year in Petaling Jaya, the body of a 15-year-old girl named Ng Yuk Tim was found dead in a suitcase. The schoolgirl had gone to her friend’s home in the morning, and subsequently went missing for the next two days. Her 23 year old friend later confessed to the murder.
One programmer was especially affected by the incident, and vowed to do something about it. Ray Teng, founder of Malaysia-based safety wearable WaryBee, has a daughter and a son, and at that point in time couldn’t help but worry about their safety. “I immediately thought, if this happened to my daughter, what would I do?” he recalls.
The older she gets, the more I worry. As a father, I can’t help but be concerned. As such, I wanted to do something that could help not only myself feel more at ease, but other parents as well.
Together with his partner Bernie Eng, they set out to find the perfect solution. They had several false starts at first:
Initially we decided to try out voice activation via the victim’s phone – all he or she needs to do is shout out for help, and an alarm would be activated. However, after some testing, we realized that since phones are usually kept in one’s bag or jeans pocket, it might not be able to capture the voice properly.
The next thing that they tried was motion sensing. In this case, a victim would need to wave his or her phone in a certain shape in the air, and the alarm would be triggered. As expected, a lot of false signals were created by the motion of the phone being accidentally moved around in non-threatening situations.
The duo finally hit the jackpot when they had a chat with a hardware guy, who was a friend of Eng. “He told us, ‘why not create a wearable item to act as the trigger?’ That’s where the idea for WaryBee came about,” Teng says.
A beautiful panic button
The WaryBee wearable comes in the form of a necklace or bracelet, but the triggering device is hidden in a tiny pendant on the jewelry. Teng describes it as a ‘panic button’ – all that the victim needs to do is press it, and a signal will be sent to the phone of a person – or several people – of their choosing. These people are called ‘guardians’, and will need to install the WaryBee mobile app to receive the signal.
“Once the button is pressed, a pre-determined message as well as the victim’s location are sent to the guardian(s) – he or she is alerted to these by a loud beeping alarm,” he explains.
Accessibility is one of the key reasons for making it a wearable accessory. “We consulted the police, and they told us that when someone is in trouble, they don’t have the luxury of time, nor presence of mind, to call for help. They’ll be in too much of a panic,” he explains. “They might have pepper spray, but chances are that they might not be in time to grab it, or will not be able to overcome the attacker anyway.”
Consumer appeal is another factor. WaryBee started its life as a squarish-looking device. Unfortunately, the feedback received was that it was far too unattractive, and since WaryBee is made primarily for girls and women to don, it didn’t make the cut. Hence, Teng decided to approach jewelry designers to make the WaryBee device look more appealing.
Practically speaking, making it inconspicuous is also important so that aggressors aren’t able to detect it. “Taking the form of a necklace or bracelet allows victims to activate it as discreetly as possible,” he says.
Additionally, the pendant is made of aluminium, making it fairly durable and hence able to endure any rough treatment it might go through in the event of an attack.
Pre-empting potential problems
False signals are a potential problem – if they happen too often, the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome might kick in, causing those who receive the alarm to dismiss it. To combat this, Teng says that they are thinking of building two override functions into the device:
Firstly, we can design it such that the victim has to press the button for two to three seconds to activate the alarm. Secondly, we can create three to five seconds long ‘pre-warning’ tones to inform the victim that the signal is about to be triggered – if you don’t stop it within that time, it will be sent.
Apart from simply informing the people of choice, Teng is building another feature into the device that would notify those around – who are within a certain radius and have the WaryBee app installed – of the location of the victim. The radius covered by the device currently stands at 30 metres.
The location of the victim is pinpointed via his or her phone’s wifi or GPS signal, as the WaryBee device is paired with the phone through Bluetooth Low Energy.
“Those who are able to make a difference in dangerous situations are likely to be those nearby,” he says. “In addition, we also want to use such location-based information to identify which are the ‘hot spots’ for crime, and build up a database for authorities to use. This is one of the reasons why we’re making this app free of charge.”
Another major problem that could easily affect the proper functioning of the WaryBee system is its reliance on wifi or data. After talking with several parties at Tech in Asia’s Startup Asia Singapore 2014 event, Teng realized that data penetration is very low in certain Asian countries, such as the Philippines.
“The backbone of the system now is data: when a signal is sent, it goes from the victim’s phone to our server, and then finally to the guardian. If there is no data or wifi present, it cannot function,” he elaborates.
Overcoming this would require a return to the basics – specifically, good old SMS. “Even if there is no data coverage, as long as there is an operator signal, it will definitely work,” he adds. In his opinion, this option could be bundled into packages offered by telcos.
What about the most unlikely – and most unfortunate – event where there is no wifi, data, or operator signal? According to Teng, many kidnapping events in Malaysia occur in underground carparks, where it is very difficult to get any signal. He elaborates:
Shopping malls with such carparks tend to be very worried about their reputation, and would do anything to prevent cases like these from happening. What we eventually want to do to help them is to plant smartphone-like transmitting devices around these carparks. So once a signal is triggered, it will immediately be sent to the security guard in the mall – simple as that.
Certain carparks in shopping malls around Malaysia currently have panic buttons built onto their walls. Of course, this would require the victim to make a dash for the nearest button, and realistically speaking, most would probably never make it there.
Crowdfunding for market validation
This is one of the many possible collaboration options that Teng foresees could be developed with the corporate sector. Right now, though, his thoughts are on estimating the potential demand for his device. The reasons for this: while looking for investors, he found out that many wanted to see how the market reacts to WaryBee first before taking the plunge.
Teng plans to determine this via crowdfunding. At the moment, operations are being funded by 1337accelerator, who have put in MYR50,000 (US$15,680), but given the costs of production and design, this sum will certainly not be enough in the long run.
One of the possible platforms he intends to use is StarHub’s Crowdtivate, in part because he wants to explore further collaboration options with the telco as well. So far, StarHub seems to be quite open to the idea of working with the WaryBee team, claims Teng.
First of its kind
Several startups such as Watch Over Me have their own take on how to tackle the problem of security. Most of them are based on preset events – if the user does not respond or log in within a certain time, an alarm will be triggered accordingly. WaryBee, however, is the first wearable in this space.
“Very few Malaysian startups dare to dabble in hardware, because it is so hard to do here,” Teng says with a laugh. “For example, it was incredibly difficult to find someone who does custom aluminium casings locally – I’ve started looking to China for these, in fact. Penang is a hub for the hardware industry in Malaysia, but you’ll need connections to find the right people.”
Costs of production are also really high, especially at the beginning. To print the WaryBee prototype in aluminium, Teng had to fork out over a thousand dollars. All these costs precede the usual amounts needed for items such as marketing – for the crowdfunding video, he intends to approach freelancers rather than a production house.
With economies of scale and funding following market validation, however, he hopes to be able to keep the cost of WaryBee for the consumer as low as possible. “Hopefully, we can sell them for about S$40 (US$32) to S$50 (US$40) each, so that as many children as possible can be protected,” Teng reveals.
The recent proliferation of smart wearables, such as watches, might pose a threat to the team. After all, if alarms could be triggered from another app on via the smartwatch, a separate wearable might be rendered redundant.
However, Teng assured Tech in Asia that the WaryBee app can be used with smart wearables as well. In fact, the app is currently compatible with the Samsung Gear 2. “There is no point competing with them. My thought was to make our app compatible with new platforms that come out instead. That way, everybody wins,” he explains.
In addition, women tend to shun such ‘smart gear’, that by and large seem to cater to the male population. WaryBee provides an attractive, female-friendly alternative.
(Image credit: Flickr user José Eduardo Deboni)Editing by Paul Bischoff