In 2006, a CNET editor named James Kim was found dead in blizzard conditions. His family was traveling along the Oregon coast when their car was moored in a snowbank. He had wandered 16 miles on foot looking for civilization or a phone signal to call for help.
After Kim's tragedy, tinkerer John Wilbur began listening to similar incidents’ accident reports and noticed a life-saving variable—mobile signal. Short of building more cell towers, he pondered ways he could fix the no-service curse that plagues many parts of the rural U.S. with something cheap, durable, and survival-ready.
His solution is a wireless, battery-less dish that enhances mobile phone signal up to 30 times stronger and 60 times faster. It's called Dots911 and it's on Indiegogo now. The dish works so well thanks to a special coating that allows it to work at high-level frequencies—making it so reliable that Wilbur was able to cancel his home Internet service and landlines. "We didn't have any need for them," he says. "If somebody calls me, it goes to the Bluetooth answering machine that I got from Fry's."
Wilbur already had knowledge of production but in order to create the dishes he became a member at TechShop San Jose, taking classes and utilizing resources for a year and a half before refining a prototype. He and other beta testers say they’ve found the device solving other problems such as in-home dead spots and signal blockages caused by trees and buildings.
Saving Lives With User-Generated GPS
But the most life-saving component to Dots911 is its software. An app—and soon, website—will include a map of color-coded dots for three different levels of mobile signal located at each quarter of a mile. Dots are crowdsourced by users who upload signal data in corresponding areas. Green dots represent good service, yellow dots mean minimal service—approximately one bar—while red dots represent zero service.
Users have the ability to choose their dot views based on their mobile phone carrier of T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, or Verizon. The app also acts as a GPS to navigate the user toward a parked car or through confusing streets such as those in Paris—without the need for a foreign carrier. "Your GPS works anywhere, and that is what we are using to place our breadcrumb trail back to a safe location selected by the user," Wilbur says.
Wilbur says he and the Dots911 team are working on both automated and user-curated data evaluation as a means of gatekeeping accurate dots. "We can see many parameters in each data dot, such as number of satellites that were used (thus determining location accuracy) at the recording of each dot, along with the type of cell phone used, and even what position it was in at the time," he says.
Unlike other signal locators and GPS systems like OpenSignal or Google Locations, Dots911 offers precision, doesn’t require an Internet connection, and gives users the option to upload data anonymously. "An LTE user had a -93 dB signal in exactly this location four weeks ago" is actionable knowledge, while ‘there’s an orange smear covering an area that might take you hours to fully explore’ is an indication that there may be a needle somewhere in the haystack," Wilbur says.
Testing his signal dots and dish, Wilbur made trips to several locations from high-profile incidents, starting with the site of James Kim’s death. The Kim family had tried calling 911 multiple times, but with no signal they were unable to get through. But, Wilbur discovered Kim and other victims’ original locations had been only a quarter of a mile from a clear call—a short walk to a lifeline. Wilbur and beta testers have already started using Dots911 and uploaded dots for highways, remote roads, and trails in California, Oregon, Michigan, France, Tuolumne County, Yosemite, and Tahoe National Forest.
Since Apple's Early Days, A Lifelong Problem Solver
A long-time problem solver, Wilbur has built a strong repertoire in production functionality, from creating the first coin-operated billiards games to transforming production at Steve Wozniak’s former company Cloud 9. National Semiconductor director turned Apple’s first CEO Michael Scott even recruited Wilbur as a hardware engineer while he was still in college.
His experience designing gaming hardware made him unexpectedly qualified to solve critical problems for one of the biggest up-and-coming computer companies—Apple. One of Apple’s problems was creating an 80-column peripheral card for its Apple II computer called the Sup'R'Terminal—to provide full-width display and word processor capability. Engineers had been working on it for two years, but Wilbur got it working within four weeks, which ended up playing a big role in saving Apple II’s sales. Impressing Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Wilbur was asked to come up with solutions for more problems such as computer overheating, where Wilbur came up with the idea of using a fan.
For Dots911, Wilbur has enlisted the help of a few Apple veterans including original Macintosh team member and cofounder of NeXT, Inc. with Steve Jobs, George Crow. Crow says Wilbur’s natural ability to solve problems creatively will help him in making Dots911 a successful product. "Not all good designers are good trouble shooters and John is a great troubleshooter," he says. "He certainly did that with Woz’s company Cloud 9 when it was having production problems with its remote control."
Crow says he thinks Dots911 software is the more important piece of the Dots911 product. "Once the website is up and running and people have been crowdsourcing, when you’re planning on going somewhere, you can actually check in advance and see what the signal strength looks like," he says. "Then, you can determine whether it makes sense to take the signal enhancer and when you get the areas that are yellow, it’s potentially a life-saving product," he says. "Tracking where there’s decent reception around town would also be very useful."
Next Step: Funding
Wilbur hopes to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter to bring Dots911 into full production. "I'd like to take it up a notch so that the app does automatic uploading of dots instead of manually doing it while you’re driving," he says. "The software requires UI polish and a scalable server-side architecture that can handle the large number of users and data we hope to serve."
Believing Dots911 could have prevented a costly 200-person search for a family in an overturned Jeep amid sub-zero temperatures in Nevada last December, Sheriff Richard Machado is in discussion with Wilbur to explore the possibility of placing signal enhancers around the Seven Troughs location where the family was stranded.
But if his Kickstarter campaign doesn’t get funded, Wilbur says he’ll still honor the sales to those who’ve backed the project to this point, saying with unshakable confidence that he’ll find a way to make Dots911attainable by the public to prevent tragedies like the death of James Kim.
"I want the result of getting lost or stranded to be, ‘Oh, our Jeep turned upside down, but it wasn't a problem, because we just called the tow truck and ordered pizza because we were hungry,’" Wilbur says. "That’s not a big life or death story."