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Ekaterina Romanovskaya

A ‘smart ring’ designed to save your life The founders of ‘Nimb’ explain their new, wearable ‘panic button’

Source: Meduza
Ekaterina Romanovskaya
Ekaterina Romanovskaya
Photo: NIMB

On June 21, Ekaterina Romanovskaya—one of the two founders of Russia's most popular satirical Twitter account, KermlinRussia—launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for her new project, Nimb. The product is a “smart ring” designed to help users inform family and friends quickly when they find themselves in danger. With almost 1,400 backers, Nimb has already collected nearly $160,000 (well over its $50,000 pledge goal). Meduza's Sultan Suleimanov spoke to Nimb's cofounders, Romanovskaya and Nikita Marshanksy, about how they built a distress signal into a ring and why they believe people need it.

Announcing the launch of Nimb, Romanovskaya wrote a revealing post on Facebook (accompanied by a no less revealing photograph of her scars), where she described how she survived a violent attack 16 years ago, when an unidentified man stabbed her nine times. Romanovskaya was saved by a neighbor who called the paramedics. “If technology is able to put you in the cockpit of a fighter jet without you ever leaving the couch, it should definitely be capable of saving lives,” she says today. 

Have you been involved in the project from the start?

Ekaterina Romanovskaya: I joined the project in mid-March [2016]. That's when I first met the two founders, Nikita Marshansky and Leonid Bereshchansky. We'd been put in touch by a mutual acquaintance. They were looking for a communications director, and I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I'd just come [to Moscow] from London, and I was simply interested in stopping by, to see what these guys were up to. 

We met and talked for two hours. They told me about the project, and about what they were hoping to achieve. I thought, hey great, and knew there was a lot I could do for them. A week later, when I was brainstorming some promotional ideas to present, I thought it would be cool to suggest some kind of personal story. And then I thought to myself: hold on, I know who has just that kind of story!

I told Nikita and Leonid how great their project is, pointing out how much easier it would have been for me, if such a product existed 16 years ago. The attack was one thing, but a couple of months after I was released from the hospital, I saw my attacker again—just in the street. He didn't recognize me. I needed to call the police somehow, but it was all very complicated, because there were no mobile phones back then. So, tears streaming down my face, I climbed over the counter in a little shop, reaching for the telephone...

So I'm well aware of what this [product] offers, and I know how important it is to react very quickly in such situations. What's vital is that you can get the information to the people you trust. Because I remember that I couldn't get through on the phone to anybody—not to the police, where the operators couldn't care less, and not to my parents or other relatives, because they'd already left work and hadn't made it home yet.

How did Nikita and Leonid come up with the idea for the ring?

Romanovskaya: Leonid had a girlfriend who picked up a really serious stalker. Once, she spent a whole hour just outside her own home, just fighting him off. The first thing he did was take her purse, with her phone in it, and throw it somewhere out of reach, grabbing both her arms.

He didn't end up hurting her seriously, but she had bruises, afterwards. She screamed and called for help, but nobody came. So Leonid was furious. He was upset. And then he started to wonder if he could create something that could emit a signal, even if an attacker had you by both your hands—even if you were handcuffed, and you were told, “Don't move.”

There are, of course, different devices: bracelets, necklaces, key chains, and so on—but you can't use any of these with both arms immobilized. Except for a ring, which you can always push. And it can help in a situation where you have a heart attack, when physically you simply can't make a phone call. Always, even when you're suddenly feeling ill, you've got three seconds to send a signal. And the ring is designed ergonomically, so the fingertip of your thumb can rest on the panic button that activates the signal. 

Nikita Marshansky
Photo: NIMB

Nikita, how'd you come to be involved in the project?

Nikita Marshansky: Leonid has been my best friend since the third grade. When this incident with his girlfriend happened, we got together the next evening and started to brainstorm about what would be possible in the modern world and how a people could protect themselves and their loved ones. We immediately thought about our own sisters—we both have sisters—and it was out of this fear for our loved ones that the project was born.

As I understand it, the project team is located in New York?

Marshansky: Katya [Romanovskaya] is in New York, and the second part of our team, Leonid and Dmitry, is in Silicon Valley. Our engineers (there are eight of them) live in Tomsk.

And one of our engineering colleagues is currently in China, in Shenzhen, slowly beginning to talk to production plants. And our contractor colleagues are located in Moscow. We've got a very multinational team right now, spread out all over the world.

Are the guys in Silicon Valley looking for investors, or simply promoting the project?

Marshansky: They represent us there, because there are lots of people there with whom we'd like to be working together. In the near future, we're planning to engage in fundraising and will seek investments for the next round [of financing]. Because right now we're running the project on our own money, but we've reached the stage of mass production, where our own resources aren't enough. We're looking for significant investment.

Why did you go with Kickstarter? Is it to collect funds to get off the ground, or is it more of a promotional move?

Marshansky: For a hardware product like ours, it's very important to get the public's affirmation of your project's central concept. And Kickstarter is practically the only industry standard that's cited in every investment community and every tech media outlet. If our project can crowdfund successfully, it means there's a good chance we'll be successful with consumers on the open market. So we went with crowdfunding to test our concept with a broader audience. 

Photo: NIMB

You'll start sending the device to early buyers in March 2017. What's the release schedule for the full launch, and how much will the ring cost?

Marshansky: The retail price will be $149, and in March 2017 we're planning to start retail sales on our website.

Nimb, as I understand it, is designed to communicate not just with friends and family members, but also with the police. Will you be discussing this with the authorities? I can't really imagine that I'd be able to call the police in Moscow with something like this.

Romanovskaya: The situation in Moscow is clear enough, so for now we're not marketing the product there. But the ring will work, and generally speaking you can upload any contacts to your own “security circle.” For example, you can pay a small fee and sign up with a private security company, and they'll send help very quickly. They're on every street corner in Russia. Few people realize that they guard not just property but people, too, and you can simply sign a contract with your a security firm, and it will respond to your signal, however you send it. It could be an email, an automated call, a push notification in an app, a text message, an iMessage, or anything.

I'd need to hire a private security firm, or that's part of the Nimb service? 

Romanovskaya: We'll have an option like this, where you can [sign the contract] directly in the app. These companies aren't everywhere, but there are a few countries, including Russia, where they work exceptionally well.

Right now, for example, we're in talks with a huge organization in Brazil that does this kind of work: tracking people, ships, their cars. Their IT system is completely compatible [with Nimb], and all we need is to finish the agreement.

Regarding the police—the 9-1-1 dispatchers in the States, for example—the situation probably requires a little more time and work on our end. But we've already begun preliminary talks. Officials have expressed interest, but the problem is that there's no unified 9-1-1 infrastructure. They've got enormous problems with underfunding, they're understaffed, and they're practically independent in every state and county, and they're all operating on different IT systems.

And they have a big problem with geolocation, which is something Nimb does very well. But for now there's no way to integrate this in such a way that the signal could be transmitted directly to 9-1-1. Another option is that the signal would go to the nearest patrol cars. This would be possible, too, and we're working on it now.

Right now, we can't say that the police are ready and we're definitely integrating, but this is certainly the direction in which we're moving: integration with law enforcement in the countries that are ready to work with us. I think the police in Russia, of course, won't care very deeply, and it's doubtful they'll get involved [with Nimb]. In the US, it's an entirely different question. The police in America are highly accountable to the public, and they're eager to improve the quality of their services, so they're interested in anything that can improve their statistics on crime.

What other directions is Nimb moving in?

Romanovskaya: Our goal is to create a system—that is, to raise a community—where people take onto themselves the responsibility of providing security to their loved ones and friends (the members of their own circle). The crowdsourcing component is the most important aspect, whatever the device. We chose a ring because a ring is the only thing that can send a signal, even if your arms are being held. And it's impossible to grab from your hand before you trigger the signal, because removing it takes a full three seconds. 

But we'll license other manufacturers, too. It could be anything. If someone wants a bracelet for their children, or some kind of pin to put on a backpack, or something else, [this will be available for sale]. We're going to release an app for the Apple Watch, and for all existing platforms. For us, the main thing is to show that technology and society have reached a point where you can add a lot of efficiency to security institutions that already exist, simply because you'll get connectivity and a fast response. This is an interactive instrument—a system that teaches people to help each other.

Later, there will be systems that protect all your property. There will be drones that instantly determine your location in a high-rise building, down to the exact floor. Because today users have to enter this manually into an app, but in the future this won't be necessary.

Nimb: Working prototype by Kathy

About the app: I saw that there's a profile for the user sending the signal. Can you upload specific information, like your blood type or whether you're a diabetic?

Romanovskaya: Of course. It's not just that you can, but that you should. Your profile in the system should contain all critical information, so you can get the help you need as quickly and easily as possible. You can upload your usual walking routes and the places you might be, writing in the apartment addresses and floors. If people see that your geolocation falls along your usual routes, then your friends will know that you're likely in “apartment 34,” or wherever.

And you can create “pre-events,” for example, when you're going somewhere strange or unfamiliar. You want to go, but you're unsure. So you create a pre-event, and if you end up triggering your panic signal, this information will be available to the members of your security circle. 

You can also specify any health issues, any medications you might need, and how and whom to inform [about a problem]. Another cool thing is the tagging system, which you use to form your community. For example, you can specify, “I'm a Columbia University graduate and I want to know if [one of] our student[s] is in trouble.” You set a radius within which you want to receive notifications (you could set it to send notifications from all over the world), and if something happens to one of these people, you'd know about it. And you can create an infinite number of these tags. You can create any group, for example “Leper Colony” or “Helping Lepers,” and use it to respond to those people in trouble.

And, as I understand it, you've got at least one working prototype now.

Romanovskaya: We've got something like a dozen working rings. They're scattered between Moscow, San Francisco, and New York. Because our developers are in Russia, we're in New York, and part of our team is out west.

And there's somebody using them every day?

Romanovskaya: I go everywhere with mine all the time. I just like the way it looks. It really is very beautiful, and I'm picky, so I wouldn't wear it otherwise. And when I meet with investors or with the press, I show them how it all works. 

But we're careful with the rings now, because we've only got a few of them, at the moment. We've got just two working devices in New York, and they're constantly being used in some kind of photoshoot, because we've got a kind of fashion reputation, and the ring really does look as cool as expensive jewelry. 

The ring is actually quite noticeable. Is that a plus or a minus?

Romanovskaya: That it's noticeable, first, is a design trend in jewelry today, in progressive, high-end brands. Second, it's ergonomic. It can't be too small, because it should always be comfortable to trigger the alarm.

The ring also has to give feedback, so you don't trigger it by accident. That's why it vibrates. And if my daughter goes to a party, and I want to take a nap, then my ring will start vibrating [if she triggers her alarm]. I might miss a notification from an app, and I might not hear a phone call, but I'm not likely to miss vibrations on my finger—even when I'm asleep.

If the question is about whether Nimb will become something the criminal world learns to recognize, then think of it like wearing a sign that says, “This object is protected by the Nimb security system.” It's very difficult to remove [the ring] before the user triggers the distress signal. And when you're choosing, say, a random victim to rob, you'll see the ring and know not to mess with that person, because they'll trigger the distress signal.

Of course, if you're the president of the United States, and you're being targeted by snipers, Nimb isn't going to save you. Or if somebody comes up behind you and hits you over the head with a pipe. But these cases are rare. What usually happens is you sense something suspicious, or you're in a [bad] neighborhood, and you're already ready to push the button. I think the fact that the ring is noticeable will help the ring's prevention factor, more than anything. 

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.

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Sultan Suleimanov