All in the wrist

Jim Van Law, president of Whereable Technologies in Mount Pleasant, created Riskband, a device that transmits a user's GPS location, takes photos and puts the user on the phone with first responders in case of a disaster.

Jim Van Law was having breakfast with a friend on Daniel Island a few years back, and they started kicking around an idea: a panic button you could carry anywhere.

Wearable technology was gaining popularity around then, and the horrors of mass shootings and terrorist attacks were hardly strangers to the American consciousness.

So sitting on a plane the next day, Van Law sketched out what a panic button would need: The ability to call for help by pressing a button, even if the person wearing it didn't have a phone it could connect to; a GPS to send first responders to the right place; and a camera to show exactly what the situation looked like.

As far as he could tell, no one had built something quite like it. He figured it was either an untapped market or a money pit.

Van Law is about to find out which.

His company, Mount Pleasant-based Whereable Technologies, has been developing a connected wristband since 2013, spending some $2.7 million to build and test prototypes, Van Law said. After a dozen versions, it's releasing the device — called Riskband — this fall.

It has the GPS, camera and two-way communication he jotted down on his flight three years ago, and it doesn't need to be connected to a smartphone to make a call. It can connect users to GEOS, an emergency response company, and it can send alerts if there's trouble nearby.

The company, which Van Law founded with board chairman Mark Karsch, of New York, has inked a few contracts to distribute the wristbands to college students and pizza delivery drivers later this year. And it has big ambitions, visions of thousands of wristbands worn by most anyone who works out of the office.

“I'm thinking about social workers who go out to do work. Delivery drivers — the guy who's delivering your pizza, the guy who's delivering your sandwich. Federal Express drivers, UPS drivers,” Van Law said. “Anybody who has to work outside of home.”

Wearable devices have boomed in popularity in recent years as fitness trackers like the Fitbit and smartwatches like the Apple Watch have swept onto the market.

But even as they have become increasingly commonplace, they still have relatively limited appeal. Only 16 percent of Americans have a wearable device, according to a survey conducted last fall by the market research firm eMarketer.

Analysts say that's partly because of what's on the market. Not everyone wants to pay to keep track of their workouts, and many smartwatches act like little more than expensive extensions of their users' smartphones.

Most wearables these days lack a purpose that makes them a clear must-have. But personal safety might be it.

A survey conducted in March by Ericsson Consumerlab suggests that as wearable business outgrows its focus on health and fitness, security may well be next. Devices that make people safer, it concluded, are “sought after,” even though they're not widely available.

And when the research firm polled people in five countries about what kind of device they'd want to wear, a panic button was the top answer.

It registered more interest than the main kinds of devices on the market today — smartwatches, fitness trackers and smart glasses. And when they were asked how long it would take for a panic button to catch on, people said they figured it would be mainstream by 2020, before most other ideas.

“We can safely say that safety and security is one area that will probably take the wearable market forward,” said Jasmeet Singh Sethi, senior adviser at Ericsson Consumerlab. “The health and fitness market is limited, and that's why we believe the bigger potential is beyond it.”

Even so, Van Law isn't much focused in taking the Riskband mainstream.

Consumers can be fickle, so finding a mass market is expensive and difficult. Plus, analysts say, a successful safety device would probably need to do something else — to have features people use more often — and Van Law says he's not interested in having his company build smartwatches.

He'd rather keep focused on security instead, he says. And he thinks the device has plenty of potential in the business world anyway, selling to companies who send their employees into the field.

He envisions having workers wear the Riskband in all number of industries. Pizza delivery drivers, mail carriers and social workers could wear them, he figures. So could in-home nurses, real-estate agents or truck drivers. And as the company grows, Van Law hopes colleges might distribute the devices to their students, or churches give them to missionaries working abroad.

The device has a chance to make a difference, he says, by getting people help if they need it and mitigating bad situations when they arise. And at $30 a month per device, it has a chance to become a lucrative business.

“We can change the outcomes of those things. We really can, and that's the exciting part,” Van Law said. “We get to make money doing that, and that's the cherry on the cake.”

So far, the Riskband has seen some early glimmers of that potential.

By the end of the year, Van Law says he expects to have delivered close to 30,000 wristbands — a good start, he says, but one that could be dwarfed by a few big contracts.

The company has signed a deal with Domino's and some of its franchisees to put the devices on delivery drivers in places like New Orleans and Indianapolis and parts of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. Van Law said the details — like how many wristbands will go out — are still being worked out.

And the national Black Women's Health Imperative plans to distribute them this fall to women at domestic violence centers and three historically black colleges as part of its My Sister's Keeper initiative. Linda Goler Blount, its president and CEO, said her organization plans to spend about $1 million in its first year using the device, though it's still firming up its plans.

The hope, Blount said, is that the devices' ability to record audio and take pictures will deter an attack in the first place. But if one happens anyway, she said, prosecutors will at least have more evidence to hold perpetrators accountable.

“If we were in a situation where the world knew that a device like Riskband existed, then my hope, Jim's hope is that a man walking down the street who might want to attack a woman might think twice about it,” Blount said.

Students at Fayetteville State University, Howard University and Spelman College will wear Riskbands this year, Blount said, and seven other schools have expressed interest in getting involved. Meantime, the organization plans to start distributing devices to women who have been victims of domestic violence in an effort to protect them while their cases move through the courts. Agencies in the Lowcountry will be among the first to receive the wristbands, though Blount wouldn't say which.

“It puts control and technology right where women need it — on them,” Blount said. “It gives us this level of control that we just didn't have before.”

Still, the potential benefits of — and demand for — security wearables is sure to draw lots of competition.

And while the market doesn't have many big names yet, it's likely to before too long, said Weston Henderek, director of connected intelligence at NPD Group, a market research firm.

The new version of the Apple Watch's operating system, for example, will let users call 911 by holding down a button, though it'll have to be connected to Wi-Fi or a phone. And already a handful of companies have built devices that will text family and friends in an emergency.

But Van Law says he's not worried about them. The Riskband, he says, can do more than his competitors' devices, and it works without a smartphone, still a relatively new feature in the wearable market.

“This is a security device. This is a device that doesn't do anything else,” Van Law said. “It's apples and oranges.”

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.