This Digital Compass Will Find Your Friends In a Crowd Even When Your Cellphone Is Useless

Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

Organizing a group of friends for an outing got significantly easier when smartphones came along, but even the best-laid plans can be thrown into chaos if your posse is headed somewhere cell phone service is spotty. The LynQ—a digital compass that points towards your friends instead of true north—works without cellular data or wifi to help you all find each other...as long as no one wanders indoors and away from a GPS signal.

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I first checked out the LynQ at CES 2019. The company was showing off the tracker in its near production-ready form, but its creators have been developing the product since about 2014, and in addition to raising several million dollars in funding from outside investors to help make it a reality, the LynQ was made available for pre-order via Indiegogo where it raised an additional $1.7 million from backers. Unfortunately, the product’s official ship date has been pushed back several times, from June earlier this year to December of this year. The Indiegogo backers are in the process of receiving their units right now, and the official launch is finally set for January, but delays like this are not entirely uncommon when small companies try to bring an original idea to market.

Having had a chance to try out three of the LynQ devices in and around my neighborhood over the past week I can confirm that the LynQ is real, and it’s a clever alternative to relying on a smartphone to track down a group of friends during outdoor adventures, or even keeping tabs on pets and kids off playing on their own. But as with all first-gen products there’s some limitations, and some definite room for refinement.

The LynQ looks like a chunky plastic carabiner with a small, round monochromatic LCD display on one end, and a locking clip on the other that can be used to attach the tracker to a strap on your pack, a belt, or even a dog’s collar if they’re large enough to carry it around.

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It doesn’t feel indestructible—you’re not going to want to go rappelling with this as part of your mountaineering kit—but it is designed for outdoor use and while that plastic housing and screen will inevitably get scuffed up and scratched, the LynQ is completely waterproof so you don’t have to worry about it dying during a downpour, or malfunctioning if it gets doused in beer at a festival.

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The most notable feature of the LynQ is the device’s simplicity. In addition to a microUSB charging port on the top hidden beneath a rubber gasket cover, there’s just a small LED status light, that round screen, and a single button. Normally I shudder in fear at electronic devices with a one-button interface (scarred by years of setting the time and date on retro digital watches) but the LynQ employs a clever short press versus long press technique for navigating menus and making selections. The screen even temporarily inverts so it’s easy to know when you’ve made a long button press properly.

Spelling out your name with a one-button interface isn’t as nightmarish as it sounds as the LynQ uses its accelerometer to navigate the alphabet by twisting the device.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)
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Setting up the device is fairly straightforward, you need to give each one a specific name (usually based on the person carrying it) and then sync multiple units with each other. Even entering characters with a single button isn’t as nightmarish as you’d expect as the LynQ includes an accelerometer inside so simply twisting the tracker back and forth scrolls through the alphabet at variable speeds. It’s not as fast as a keyboard, obviously, but it works well enough to not be frustrating.

Up to twelve LynQs can be all synced together at one time, but the process requires them to all be nearby (to prevent someone’s else’s LynQ from pairing with your private group) so you’ll have to collect each one ahead of an adventure. The pairing process is relatively painless, although it does require everyone to pay attention and push the button on their tracker at roughly the same time for it to succeed.

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Once multiple units are synced the LynQ’s button can be used to cycle through all of the connected trackers one by one. Using a combination of GPS and low power wireless signals, the synced LynQs all share their location data with each other in real-time, across a distance of about three miles. Like a compass, a moving dot that runs around the perimeter of the screen points in the direction of the LynQ you’re tracking, while the actual distance is displayed in the middle of the screen.

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The dot grows larger the closer you get, eventually turning into a long bar, and then a full circle when the person you’re looking for should be near enough to spot. At greater distances, the trackers are quite accurate. I left one of the LynQs sitting in the front window of my house while I went for a walk and documented various distances and then double-checked the results with Google Maps’ distance measuring feature.

  • Nearby street corner: LynQ reported a distance of 0.21 kilometers to my house, while Google Maps claimed the measured distance was 0.215 kilometers.
  • Nearby bus stop: LynQ reported a distance of 1.10 kilometers to my house, while Google Maps claims the measured distance was exactly the same.
  • Local grocery store: LynQ reported a distance of 2.02 kilometers from my house, while Google Maps claimed the measured distance was 2.03 kilometers.
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The accurate results aren’t surprising given the LynQ uses the same GPS signals as every other navigation device on the market, but it becomes far less accurate at close distances. Civilian access to the GPS satellite network is limited to 16.5 feet of accuracy, which compounds when two LynQs are trying to locate each other, resulting in a potential variance of up to 33 feet. When you get in that range the LynQ switches to a vague message that says the person and tracker you’re looking for is nearby.

At that range you’re easily within shouting distance of the person you’re trying to find if you still can’t spot them (like at a crowded music festival) but it means the LynQ isn’t ideal for finding a misplaced backpack, or a friend who isn’t able to respond due to an injury or inebriation. Its creators don’t market the LynQ as an emergency device in any way as a result, but part of me would like to see it perform some kind of short-range distance extrapolation using the signals bouncing between all the devices when GPS reaches its accuracy limitations.

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The other GPS-related shortcoming of the LynQ is that it doesn’t work indoors where the satellite signals can’t be detected. Being able to track down your family in a busy mall after a long day of holiday shopping would be a killer feature for a device like this, but it’s far from a dealbreaker. If your friends and family like to spend a lot of times outdoors but not a lot of time trying to track each other down on the side of a snowy mountain or deep in a national park, the LynQ is a clever way to wrangle a crowd when smartphones aren’t an option.

README

  • A simple user interface that’s easy to navigate despite having just a single button.
  • No cellular data, wifi, or mobile data plan needed.
  • Waterproof and relatively durable, but it is made of plastic.
  • Battery life rated at about 24 hours of active use.
  • Works with a range of about three miles and up to 12 LynQs can be synced with each other.
  • Accuracy is limited at distances of less than 30 feet, but that should be close enough to shout for the person you’re looking for.
  • Only works outdoors where it can reliably detect a GPS signal.
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