October 20, 2014
Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), this adds up to more than 237,000 Americans every year. At a time when national attention has been focused on the disappearance of Hannah Graham – a student at UVA, my very own alma mater – topics surrounding personal safety, trust, and sexual assault have flooded the media. And, while there is no definite way to prevent sexual assault from taking place, there’s no reason why we can’t continue to innovate on tools for prevention. Pittsburgh startup LifeShel has created one such solution – the Whistl smartphone case – and it’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign.
Sexual assault can happen literally anywhere. Whether it’s at a party, in a nightclub, in the streets of New York City, or in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., there will always be a risk for sexual assault. LifeShel understands that sexual assault and violent crime is ubiquitous, which is why it’s developed Whistl, a smartphone case embedded with an alarm system powerful enough to disorient a perpetrator. By the mere press of a button on the case, the Whistl strobes a 90-lumen LED light (enough to temporarily blind someone) and sounds a 120-decibel alarm (which is essentially like standing in the front row of a rock concert), giving users an opportunity to seek safety.
“Whistl‘s concept was a result of our engineering team responding to the attempted assault of one of our close friends, Leah Yingling [now LifeShel’s Director of Community Outreach],” said LifeShel cofounder and CEO Jayon Wang. “And we [also saw] opportunities for community safety arise from the data our smartphones are generating.”
While there are some other tools or app on the market that aim to prevent sexual assault, Want said that everything else out there requires an additional device or requires users to log into an app – things that are not only inconvenient, but adds valuable minutes that potential victims of violent crime don’t have. And what’s notable about Whistl is its many other features. At the point of the alarm system’s activation, the case connects through your smartphone’s Bluetooth to send a 911 alert, notifies trusted friends and family through a group SMS chat, and activates video and audio recording. At other times, users can use Whistl’s check-in feature that will prompt the system to check on the user every few minutes, and activating automatically if the user fails to respond; it’s something definitely useful for those times when you’re walking home alone and feel uncomfortable.
“Whistl has been in development since March of this year. We have gone through four iterations of our electronics, resulting in a robust and reliable alert system,” said Wang. “When we iterated through ideation and design, we had great input from our friends at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, The Pittsburgh Marathon, Carnegie Mellon University and TechShop, all helping us find the best feature set for our customers.”
LifeShel’s Whistl case has gained a lot of support from the Pittsburgh community and has been developed after mass feedback from its potential consumer market. Its Kickstarter campaign is aiming to raise $70,000 to manufacture its first production run. Through the company’s participation in AlphaLab Gear – a Pittsburgh-based hardware accelerator – the company has created a prototype that is thin, functional, and won’t change a consumer’s daily phone usage.
“Our big milestones are making sure that the technology fits our customer needs, and that our response times for emergency responders are faster than traditional 9-1-1 calls. Overall, our value come in three parts: 1) immediate connection to emergency help for our end users; 2) better emergency data and information for 9-1-1 and dispatch services; and 3) collected data from a user-network to create safety products for a whole community.”
Much like anything else in this age of Big Data, LifeShel is looking to do more than serve the individual. Wang emphasizes the need for data, so that police and emergency dispatch has a better understanding of where sexual assault and violent crimes actually happen. Over time, the company hopes to build a real-time safety index feature that will provide information on an individual user’s environment’s level of safety per the data generated from all users – a feature that could certainly benefits public policy officials, city planners, and local policy.
LifeShel’s Whistl case will be made available for the iPhone 5/5s/6, Samsung Galaxy S, HTC One series. Click here to check out its Kickstarter.
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