Since the dawn of mankind, and probably even a while before that, parents have been asking themselves the same question: “Where are my kids?” In modern times they’ve come up with a few, imperfect ways to answer it, like instructing their children to send them a text message whenever they arrive at soccer practice — which works well once or twice, until the child completely forgets about it. Now Whereoscope, a Y Combinator-funded startup that’s launching today, may have a solution that’s more reliable and easier to use than most other kid-tracking solutions on the market.
Whereoscope consists of an iPhone application that runs in the background (you’ll need iOS 4, which enabled background apps). During an initial setup process, you designate a handful of key locations, or geofences, that your children often visit — their school, home, a best friend’s house, etc. You can elect to receive a push notification whenever your child leaves or arrives at one of these areas. Your child doesn’t have to actually do anything to check in, so there’s nothing for them to forget. And, if your child were to “accidentally” disable the application, Whereoscope can send you a warning giving you a heads up.
Of course, plenty of other iPhone applications can use your GPS to track the device (navigation apps do this), but most of these will drain your battery quickly. To conserve battery life, Whereoscope has some built-in intelligence to figure out when to activate your GPS, and when it does, it only does so for a few moments. This involves paying attention to when your child’s cell phone swaps between cell towers, and also when they’re in the proximity of one of the locations you’ve set up alerts for. The Wherescope team says that the app should have a relatively small impact on your battery life.
Wherescope will be competing with AT&T’s own child-tracking service FamilyMap, which allows parents to monitor where their kids are. But the Whereoscope team says that FamilyMap only uses cell tower data, and not the phone’s GPS, yielding less accurate results. They also say that FamilyMap doesn’t allow for the use of geofences, where parents can receive an alert whenever their child gets to school or back home (instead, you have to set up a schedule).
Update: Joel Grossman, who runs FamilyTabs, the platform that powers FamilyMap, points out in the comments that AT&T does use GPS when it is available, and it works on multiple phones without needed extra softwore (full details here). However, it looks like GPS isn’t available on the iPhone.
It’s also worth pointing out that while there are other location tracking services available, like Google’s Latitude, most parents will probably prefer a dedicated service where there’s no concept of a social network or the possibility that a child might change their privacy settings to something more public.
Wherescope was formerly called ChildPulse, and an older version of the application is available here on the App Store under the old name. The old version has a few limitations: you can only set up two geofences (the final version will let you monitor as many as you’d like), and it only lets you monitor one child at a time (the new version will allow for up to four users). The company says the updated version is currently awaiting Apple’s approval. The service will eventually charge on a subscription basis, but anyone can get it now for free and will be grandfathered in under the free plan, even once Whereoscope starts charging.
This is a good idea, and it obviously has a huge market. It does come with one caveat for now, though: the current system requires that both the parent and the child be using iPhones running iOS 4, though it will eventually be possible for the parent to set up the system and monitor their child from a web app. However, the Whereoscope team says that according to their initial data, most of the time children who have iPhones have at least one parent using an iPhone as well.
Whereoscope is part of a new surge in location-based applications that was spurred by the launch of iOS4. One application that includes similar functionality is Family Tracker, and an application called Locate My Phone will be hitting the App Store soon as well, though the latter has a broader focus and isn’t geared exclusively towards parents and their kids.