The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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The Cure for Common Absentmindedness

According to The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom, an average adult forgets three things a day. With our human tendency toward forgetfulness in mind, a team of electrical engineering students has designed a technology called StuffTracker, which allows anybody with a Smartphone to monitor the location of valuable objects carried around on a daily basis. StuffTracker allows you to forget how forgetful you are. In fact, StuffTracker draws its inspiration from absent-mindedness, itself, and will significantly reduce the problem of forgetting or losing critical personal items such as house keys, purses, wallets, laptops, and mobile phones.

Fittingly enough, StuffTracker was conceived when one of its four creators, Fadi Zoghzoghy, forgot his umbrella on a rainy day at the UMass Amherst campus. It was a very wet lesson and a very dry umbrella, both of which he will never forget again. Now he and three fellow students have engineered a technology to remind users every time they forget critical items.

“Early in the fall we were all brainstorming for an idea we could develop for an Innovation Challenge project,” Zoghzoghy says about the annual UMass Amherst contest to conceptualize technological products for commercialization. “And this umbrella incident got me thinking about how many things I either forget or lose. I’ve lost my keys, I’ve lost my ID, and I always have to go through a lot of trouble to find them. And we all thought about a device to keep track of your most important articles.”

At that point, of course, StuffTracker was only a gleam in the eyes of Zoghzoghy and his three team mates, Brennan Burns, Steve Stanvick, and Sahil Shanghavi, along with faculty advisor Tilman Wolf of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. But now they have their whole system designed, and they’ve almost completed a prototype of their pocket tracking device, which is about an inch thick and several inches in diameter. Current technologies and methods neither enable users to find lost items with ease, nor do they notify them when they forget to bring critical items with them.

“StuffTracker gives you a method to detect your items in the first place,” as Stanvick sums up the whole system. “It gives you a device to tell you where your objects are when you need them. It uses GPS to tell you where you are. And it provides a way to communicate with a large database that tracks the information related to the location of all these items.”

“To detect your items,” the StuffTracker system makes use of various RFID (radio frequency identification device) tags, ranging in size from a dime to a credit card, which you can stick on the valuables you carry around. “To tell you where your possessions are when you need them,” your pocket tracker can pick up radio signals from these tags whenever you come within five feet of them. “To tell you where you are,” the pocket tracker uses information from U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, which provide reliable positioning, navigation, and timing services to worldwide users on a continuous basis. And “to communicate with a large database that tracks the information,” you can use your Smartphone and connect to the StuffTracker website, which coordinates the whole system.

“The first service our StuffTracker provides is that it knows what items you’re tracking,” explains Stanvick. “So if you suddenly notice you’re missing something, we can tell you where it was last seen. Or if something is missing from the articles you normally carry, our system will automatically send a vibration alert to your Smartphone.”

When alerted, you have the option of using your Smartphone to logon to the StuffTracker website and see a GPS map of your immediate vicinity, with all your registered items pinpointed according to where and when they were last seen.

“The website also has the ability to send a text message to your phone telling you which item is missing and where it might be,” says Zoghzoghy.

But suppose the item is not where it was last detected. “We actually have a system we’re working on right now to handle that case,” says Burns. “We can use a GPS reading of where you’ve gone to draw a path for you, hitting all the places you’ve been. Then you can retrace your steps.”

One concept that makes StuffTracker unique among RFID tracking devices is that it can take advantage of its “distributive network,” meaning that the deployment of many pocket trackers will help everyone in the whole system locate lost objects.

“So let’s say I drop a keychain in the Gunness Student Center,” says Burns, “but I’m busy and I don’t notice the alerts I receive. Then suppose Fadi here walks by my keychain. Now, his device will see the encrypted number established for my keychain, but won’t know what it is or who it belongs to. His device won’t tell him, but it will report the encrypted number back to the StuffTracker website. The database then recognizes the encrypted number for my keychain and notifies me where it is so I can go back and get it.”

And what about the most common scenario, when you simply lose your keys around the house?

“In that case, the tracking device knows when it’s picking up a signal from one of your tagged items,” says Stanvick. “So you can basically walk around your house, and our device will scan the area around you as you do. As soon as it picks it up, it will tell you. You just have to come within five feet.”

In all, StuffTracker is a very clever concept for making forgetfulness foolproof. (April 2010)