Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.
As demonstrated by last year's purchases of map providers Navteq and Tele Atlas, companies are betting big on the future of location-based services. Knowing, processing, and integrating the location of people and things can be a valuable bridge between the digital and physical worlds, but today most of the activity is in the simple direction of cars from a location to a destination.
Zoombak offers a portable unit about the size of a Zippo lighter that integrates a GPS receiver and cellular radio that reports back on its location when queried. The company offers the unit in two packages -- one for use in vehicles and the other for use with dogs.
The receivers in both products are identical and the packages are distinguished by their included accessories: the one for pets includes a collar attachment. Unlike that of one competitor, PocketFinder, the Zoombak receiver is not waterproof, but the company offers tips on how to make it better withstand the elements.
Using Zoombak is straightforward. First, one places the charged receiver in their vehicle. Zoombak's integrated and non-user replaceable battery lasts about five days, but the company provides accessories in the box for charging from a 12-volt lighter connection or for having the product installed professionally.
Zoombak recommends that the receiver be placed in a glove compartment as one of the preferred locations; a center console can also work and has the added advantage of closer access to a DC outlet for charging when the vehicle is on. Unfortunately, while dogs do generate love and drool in abundance, they don't generate enough usable electricity to charge the unit while in use.
From there, you can use Zoombak's site to locate your vehicle, which shows up as a circle on a simple map. Zoombak can send emails or SMS messages when its battery is about three hours from running out of juice and just before it turns itself off. Other than that, there aren't many ways to check in on the device from a mobile phone, although the company's site says that that bit is coming soon.
Zoombak's site also allows consumers to create safety zones that trigger notification when the device's carrier extends past them. However, the zones are very limited and only allow you to specify a simple radius of a couple of yards or miles. This may be okay for pets or simple auto theft detection, but the Zoombak site could really benefit by giving users the flexibility to carve out a geographic area, as well as time triggers that would report movement during, say, the middle of the night.
This all may strike avid stalker readers (and you know who you – and where your victims – are) as the best invention since night vision binoculars. After all, if it can work on pets, can't it work on people? Perhaps it can, but not in a very discreet way. The Zoombak service couldn't identify location when the device was placed in a jacket pocket, likely due to the limitations of GPS coverage indoors. For those looking to track children or others who may wander, a cellular plan that enables individual tracking is likely a better option.
The car tracker costs $249 while the dog tracker costs $199. Both require a $15 per month service fee with a discount for the first six months if paid upfront. There is no limit to the number of lookups you can make in a month, but early termination fees apply. Zoombak offers 24/7 live phone-based customer support, which was helpful in answering some simple questions.
Zoombak offers a relatively affordable locator product that is simple to buy and simple to use. It may not offer all of the flexibility or advantages of a dealer-installed LoJack system, but can help offer peace of mind. Enhancement of its web and phone capabilities should have stronger appeal to those who prefer to have more flexibility in defining rules for protecting those with four wheels or legs.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.