From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
UNC-CH computer expert receives patent for device that summons emergency help
Chapel Hill -- Leandra Vicci of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill often finds good ideas popping into her head at the most unpredictable times and places -- like while showering in the morning. One day last year, between the soap suds and the final rinse, the computer scientist came up with an idea that just about everyone would agree was great.
"I had read about several attempted rapes in Chapel Hill, and that seemed like such a terrible thing," Vicci said. "When you are accosted, you just don't have time to pull out your cell phone, dial 911 and tell people exactly where you are and what's happening.
"It occurred to me that the technologies existed to report such emergencies automatically," she said. "These were GPS for location, cell phones for communication and GIS for translation, with a microphone to hear what was happening and a microprocessor to run things."
Her idea was to marry a global positioning system (GPS) receiver, which provides precise coordinates of its location, with a microprocessor and cell phone chips to make wireless connection with a geographic information system (GIS) server. The server in turn translates geographic coordinates into locations understandable in plain language and can notify an emergency response service such as 911.
For example, the 911 operator would hear, "This is an automated report of an emergency occurring at 100 feet north of the intersection of Rosemary and Graham streets in Chapel Hill. What you will hear is from a microphone at the scene of the emergency."
The U.S. Patent Office has just issued the university and her a patent on the idea for the "automatic emergency and position indicator." The scientist, who directs UNC-CH's microelectronics systems laboratory and does computer hardware research, has not yet built a working model of the device, but hopes to find a company to do that soon.
One form she envisions for it is a pendant on a necklace or lanyard that a person could simply yank on if danger threatens.
"Once triggered, the device, which has been continuously logging your GPS coordinates, contacts the GPS server by wireless cell phone, immediately reports your location and opens its microphone to transmit whatever is happening," Vicci said. "But it remains locally mute so an assailant does not become aware of it."
The device will be much smaller than a cell phone or a GPS navigator because the electronic chips required are so small, she said. Telephones and GPS units now are as big as they are just for convenience of use. Keypads, displays and telephone handsets can't be made much smaller and still be usable, but her device does not need them.
"My motivation was providing a tool to help potential rape victims and that was the original idea," she said. "But it seemed like this thing could be useful in many other situations where people could get into trouble. I can imagine someone who is out horseback riding or walking in the woods by herself or himself having trouble and then activating this thing to get help. Our goal is to provide something which is essentially a tool or service to make the world a safer place for people." Robert Pozner of the UNC-CH Office of Technology Development will manage the process of contacting companies to see who might be interested in developing and marketing the invention.
Note: Vicci can be reached at 919-962-1742 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.