Finding Your Lost Stuff With Help From the Crowd
When you’ve lost something, another set of eyes can spot clues that your own eyes inadvertently ignore.
This week, I tested the digital equivalent of sharp-eyed friends: Phone Halo’s TrackR. This tiny, battery-powered device attaches to important items like laptops, suitcases, keychains or wallets. It can be automatically detected by anyone who has the corresponding TrackR app, sending the location of your lost item to the company, which sends this info to you so you know where you left it.
Good news: The first TrackR you get is currently free through the company’s website. Bad news: The concept of using the crowd to find your stuff only works if enough people download the app.
If you want more than one of these things, you’ll have to pay up. The StickR TrackR, which is close to the size of a quarter, and sticks or hangs onto things, costs $25; the Wallet TrackR, which is rectangular and fits into a credit card slot, costs $29. Both cost less if you buy more than one at a time.
TrackR’s most dense install bases are in San Francisco and New York City, but I wasn’t visiting either city so couldn’t test that aspect of the TrackR in a real-life scenario. Instead, I reenacted it with help from someone who downloaded the app. When he was close enough to my “lost” keys, his phone automatically pinged Phone Halo so I could be told where they were. It worked, showing me a map of where my keys were last seen, along with the time and date.
The concept of crowdsourcing to learn about location information is used in other products like Waze, which shares live updates of road conditions like accidents or construction backups. In Trackr, crowd GPS is optional — a plus for people who worry about privacy or battery drain while using it.
The TrackR app is handsome, with a simple layout and options for personalization — like taking a photo of my device rather than using a boring icon to represent it, or choosing a song from my own music to act as my phone’s alarm (I picked Aerosmith’s “Amazing”).
But it was also buggy, occasionally crashing when I tapped the Locate TrackR button.
In addition to using the crowd to learn your lost item’s GPS coordinates, the TrackR app also does what Phone Halo introduced when I first reviewed it four years ago: It helps you find things that are close by, and alerts you before you walk away from a spot without bringing your phone or TrackR-labeled device. This works by setting off an alarm on the device when it and your phone are separated by more than 100 feet. Likewise, if you press a tiny button on the TrackR, it can locate your iPhone or Android phone by setting off an alarm on the phone, even if the phone is in silent mode.
Thankfully, both of these features can be turned off. If not, you’d be alerted every time you separated your phone from the TrackR, which could drive a person nuts after a little while. But even though my separation alerts were turned off, one TrackR kept randomly sounding its alarm. The company described this as a bug it hopes to fix.
I tested two StickR TrackRs — one hung on my keychain, and another stuck to my husband’s iPhone, which has a way of getting lost on a regular basis. I also slipped a Wallet TrackR into my wallet so I could keep tabs on it.
I downloaded the free TrackR app on an iPhone and Android phone, though crowd tracking only works on iOS for now; the company plans to have this feature finished for Android within the next month. In seconds, I created an account, which required my email and a password.
This app works in the background of your phone, so you may be helping to find someone else’s lost thing without ever knowing you’re doing so.
Each TrackR device comes with a replaceable battery that lasts for up to a year, so users won’t have to worry about recharging. The iOS app can connect to up to 10 TrackRs, while the number of connected TrackRs to Android apps depends on the type of Android phone.
I especially liked the simplicity of the TrackR app. From the home screen, each of my connected TrackR items — wallet, keychain and husband’s iPhone — had its own representative screen. I could choose a stock image of the item, like a keychain, or take a picture of the actual item, which I preferred. A large status icon confirmed that each item was paired with the phone, and two clear options showed up at the bottom of the screen: Sound Alarm and Locate TrackR.
The app’s Settings menu gave me options for turning separation alerts on or off, adding new devices, choosing custom alert sounds, and turning crowd tracking on or off.
While TrackR’s ability to notify you of nearby lost items via alarms is helpful, it’s not unique. Phone Halo needs enough people to use its app to make its crowd tracking worthwhile, and they won’t likely use the app unless they have a device.
But with the offer of free StickR TrackRs and their free corresponding app, Phone Halo is certainly worth trying on your own, or worth getting as a not-so-subtle hint gift for forgetful friends and family.