Location, location, location: Blunt's unloseable umbrella, personal tracking and the law of unintended consequences

Blunt – the Kiwi makers of “The World’s Best umbrellas” – have paired up with Tile, the location-tracking device from Silicon Valley, to produce the first “unlosable umbrella”. Does this mean it’s less cursing and frustration on a rainy day, or just another thing that’s wirelessly tethering you?

Apparently, the average person misplaces more than 3,000 items every year, and then spends about 60 hours to look for them. That’s according to Tile, the tiny lost item tracker that you can clip to, well, pretty much everything (including children, it seems).

With umbrellas supposedly one of the top five most commonly misplaced possessions, it’s only natural for an umbrella maker to work together with the Silicon Valley start-up.

Blunt, the Kiwi company that produces umbrellas so strong it can withstand winds of up to Force 12 (117 km/h), is that umbrella maker. With impressively improved strength, durability, stability and safety, Blunt umbrellas also cost a pretty penny – from NZ$89 up to NZ$145 – so they’re certainly not rain gear you’d want to lose.

Here’s where the Tile comes in. In a specially designed lining pocket, the tracking device can be inserted that allows users to track the umbrella using a smartphone app.

The pairing is supposed to be a solution to one of life’s most frustrating everyday annoyances – losing your stuff. However, it also calls into question the wisdom of attaching a signal to your personal effects, and by extension, your person.

This concern, partly, stems from the role GPS is starting to play in our daily lives. Reliance on location-based services (LBS) is increasing alongside the growth of technology.

Google’s maps service has the capability to pinpoint not only which street users are on, but also which part of the street they’re on. LBS can now respond to queries on restaurants, checking public transport, consumer deals, or booking a taxi. There’s hardware and software specifically created to track your kid.

This boom in technology has also meant other things are now affected, such as paper maps now practically obsolete with the rise of GPS guidance systems. However, other uses of the technology are slightly creepier and potentially sinister: in-store position tracking through WiFi and smartphone tracking apps have grown. It sounds slightly tin-foil-hat (and a bit gloomy), but there’s good reason.

The on-going saga of Snowden vs The NSA reveals that the agency tracks up to 5 billion records every day on the whereabouts of mobiles around the world. Wearables and “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices are increasingly susceptible to hacking possibilities. SophosLabs, a developer and vendor of computer security software and hardware, has 1.3 million pieces of malicious code in their database for the Android platform alone. 

Every single part of our digitally connected life can be and maybe prone to being monitored.

In 2012, at TEDxAustin, University of Texas at Austin assistant professor Todd Humphreys raises the possibility of geolocation technology that give millimetre-accurate GPS “dots” to pinpoint location. There are upsides to what we can do with this technology – such as search and rescue – but the more sinister possibilities are very scary.

However, it must be mentioned that the technology behind the Blunt + Tile is based on Bluetooth, which has a maximum effective range of about 90 meters. It’s nowhere near as intrusive as GPS is, and Tile’s own limitations has been set at 30 meters. Any further than that and the device relies on the “network effect”, which is the idea that a user of Tile joins and becomes a node in a network of Tile owners that can sense and report on the location of a tracker.

The goal of the Tile is, ultimately, to help people keep track of or find important items they are likely to lose. Putting it on children or pets means users need to be so close to them in the first place, that it’s unlikely they would lose them anyway. If being a creepy stalker is more on the agenda however, there are other, better, options.

For the time being, I’m going to enjoy my newest BLUNT + Tile umbrella, which has already seen some action in the past week or so. Hopefully, I'll also be able to put the Tile into action (let's face it, we all want to see if it works).

The only problem now, which the Tile doesn’t solve, is remembering to grab my brolly even on a sunny day. Auckland weather is fickle, after all.