Life360 turns your smartphone into a lifeline

Service that tracks users' location and alerts family members of their safety status extends beyond the iPhone and Android devices.

Boonsri Dickinson
Boonsri Dickinson is a multimedia journalist who covers science, technology, and start-ups. She is a contributing editor at CBS SmartPlanet, and her work has appeared in Wired, New Scientist, Technology Review, and Discover magazine. E-mail Boonsri.
Boonsri Dickinson
3 min read

Life360 allows users to check in so family members know they've arrived at their destination. Life360

A few months ago, Tessa Hulls ventured on a cross-country bike trip from San Diego to the East Coast after breaking up with her boyfriend. Hulls is still peddling away on her solo ride, but her family has, in a sense, joined her. She's attached a GPS locator to her pink and white bike and downloaded an iPhone app called Life360 so her family can see her location in real time, whenever they want to.

A couple of days ago, her brother Chris Hulls was curious about his sister's whereabouts, so he clicked on the Life360 app on his iPhone. She was in Connecticut.

Until now, subscribers needed an Android device or iPhone to use the mobile security service. Last week, however, Life360 opened up its service to non-smartphone users and customers subscribing to all carriers except MetroPCS, as a way to tap into a bigger market of consumers.

"For smartphones, we get your location through a mix of GPS, cell triangulation, and Wi-Fi data. We save that on our server and share it with your family members," said Chris Hulls, who also happens to be Life360's co-founder. "For non-smartphones, we do the same thing, but instead of getting the location from our app, we get it from the carriers directly."

In addition to tracking family members on a map (depending on a person's position, the app can pinpoint their precise location or locate them within a few tenths of a mile) Life360 provides a lifeline in the event of an emergency. When phone lines and other communication systems go down, family members can send messages to their contacts for free through the company's servers. When minor disasters of everyday life hit, users can just hit a panic button, which flashes a notification via voice, text, and e-mail, telling your emergency contacts where you are and how to help.

Hulls got the idea for a real-time GPS tracking application when he realized disaster responders after Hurricane Katrina lacked the tools to find potential victims.

"I saw the government's 'high-tech' response was to encourage people to download and print out PDF files so you could write down your emergency contacts, and thought that there must be a better way," said Hulls.

Life 360 shows sex offenders
The app also shows where sex offenders live in a given neighborhood. Life360

But in the real world, he soon realized the product's appeal would be far less urgent. It turns out Life360 is most commonly used by moms and dads worried about their kids.

Smartphone users have to download the app, so both parties can see location updates at their leisure. Non-smartphone users are sent a request via text message, asking for permission to be tracked by family members with smartphones.

"I think privacy concerns are understandable," Hulls said. "With Life360, as it's designed for the family network, everything is private and secure to your loved ones and even then they have to opt in."

Life360 makes money when customers buy GPS locators that can track any object, so they can stick one on a kid's backpack. The company charges $5 a month for non-smartphone users to use the tracking service.

Companies are taking advantage of the abundance of location-rich API info, the popular use of check-in services, and the increasing use of smartphones. For instance, Guardly lets users send pictures of possible attackers to their network of friends and family, as well as update them with current location, while NearParent lets parents and a trusted network of friends know where children are. Life360 is some combination of the above: it can be a personal stalker, a sex offender notifier, and an emergency alarm system.