Students representing the Global Innovation Exchange are nearing the finish line in a competition to create wearable sensors that can send wireless alerts in threatening situations — even if the person wearing the sensor is bound and gagged.
The $1 million Naveen Anu Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE — backed by Seattle-area entrepreneur Naveen Jain and his wife, Anu Jain — focuses on the issues of sexual harassment and violence against women.
Studies show that one out of three women across the globe face the threat of violence in their lifetime. But the problem is much worse in India, where Naveen Jain grew up. In Delhi, the nation’s capital, 92 percent of women report having experienced physical or sexual violence in public spaces, according to U.N. figures.
Enlisting technology to address the problem is what motivated Anu Jain to take a lead role in creating the prize. “Safety should not be considered a luxury for women – it is a fundamental human right,” she said last year.
It’s also what motivated Archisa Guharoy to join the Global Innovation Exchange team, which is known as Saffron. Guharoy, an engineering student at the University of Washington, was born and raised in India, in the area around Mumbai.
In that part of the world, sexual harassment and assaults are known euphemistically as “Eve teasing.”
“I know that most of my peers back home (in India) have faced some form of Eve teasing,” she told GeekWire in an email, “and incidents like sexual assault and violence are constantly on the news and are ever growing.”
The Global Innovation Exchange, or GIX, is an educational partnership founded by the University of Washington, China’s Tsinghua University and Microsoft. Last year, the exchange opened up a learning center in Bellevue, Wash.
GIX’s Team Saffron was one of nearly 90 competitors that signed up for the XPRIZE challenge. After several rounds of elimination, Saffron is one of only five finalists to make the cut.
The finalists recently conducted field trials of their devices in Mumbai, and the winner of the $1 million purse is due to be revealed in New York on Wednesday.
The competition called upon teams to design wearable devices that could trigger location-specific wireless alerts in emergency situations, even in low-connectivity environments. What’s more, the devices have to cost less than $40.
Saffron’s engineers built an transmitter-receiver that’s about the size of a half-dollar.
“I worked on not only making sure the device looks appealing, but also is comfortable to wear and easy to attach,” Zoe Zou, an engineering student at UW and GIX who grew up in Beijing, told GeekWire in an email.
Most people probably wouldn’t even know you’re wearing the device.
“For women, it clips to your bra, and it’s worn around your chest,” team leader Nicholas Becker, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at UW and GIX, told GeekWire. “For men, it can clip around the waist of your pants or underwear.”
Wearers can use a smartphone interface to send a text alert, via Wi-Fi or a mobile phone connection. They can also tap out a simple call for help, equivalent to an SOS, or use a predetermined pattern of breathing to send an alert surreptitiously.
The device could even be activated automatically by biosignals of stress, such as an extremely elevated heart rate. Becker said the competition’s scenarios include situations where the wearer is physically restrained. “That may mean arms and legs, the mouth may be covered, etc.,” he said. “It has to be a very robust solution.”
Saffron’s system lets users enter in a list of personal contacts to be alerted in the event of an emergency, in addition to the official agencies. And when it comes to location data, the device sends out more than just the GPS coordinates.
“Our artificial intelligence system predicts whether you’re in a moving vehicle, what type of moving vehicle, what floor of a building you’re on,” Becker said.
The battery-powered device has a lot in common with health-monitoring devices like FitBit bracelets, and Becker said he and his teammates are looking at those applications as well.
“We believe that we can create a women’s healthy-lifestyle brand,” Becker said. “If you can raise women’s health, you raise the health of the family, and the health of the community. So we believe that we can make other impacts beyond just personal safety, thereby also giving a reason to have this with you all the time, so that when you need it, it’s there.”
If Team Saffron wins the million dollars, “the money will be used to finish out the systems and commercialize them,” Becker said.
Becker is prepared to become the CEO of a business venture to commercialize Saffron 2.0, and his teammates are prepared to join him. “This project is very purposeful and meaningful to our team,” he said. “We all really believe in this cause.”
At the same time, Becker acknowledges that it will take more than a coin-sized gizmo to fend off the threats facing women today.
“We do believe that technological innovation in this space can make small changes, and those changes can lead to lasting impacts over time,” he said. “But ultimately, this is a very, very big issue that requires support from government, societal and cultural changes, and education.”
In addition to Saffron, the finalists for the Anu Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE include:
- Artemis, based in Switzerland, which is working on a wearable device that captures vital signs, gestures and emotional signals to monitor women’s health and safety.
- Leaf Wearables, based in India, which is already selling a $29 smart pendant that can send an SOS alert and location data. Leaf says its Safer pendant serves as an early version of the XPRIZE device.
- Nimb and Safetrek: California-based Nimb sells a panic-button smart ring and has partnered with Missouri-based SafeTrek, a provider of app-based emergency alert services.
- Soterra, based in Pennsylvania, designed a device that’s the size of a garage-door opener and can relay emergency alerts as well as GPS coordinates and barometric data through a dynamic mesh network.
Update for 2:17 p.m. PT: This report has been revised to characterize the status of Saffron’s team members at UW and GIX more precisely.