“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” –Seth Godin


Tribe is a wearable ‘smart compass’ that displays the location of each member of a group without depending on any existing cell or satellite network. The device utilizes long range radio frequency to transmit location and distance information between devices which is then visually displayed on the interface. Several body attachments and a companion mobile app give users additional customization and features. This project served as my MFA thesis project as an Industrial Design graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. It was selected as a semifinalist in the 2015 McCloskey Business Plan Competition hosted by the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame.





I thought of the concept for Tribe during a surf session with my friend John Basile in the Fall of 2009. We were the only two at the beach as we paddled out during a hurricane on Cape Cod. A dense fog rolled in over the violent storm surf and I lost sight of him for nearly half an hour. The surf trip that had started out in excitement soon turned into a test of survival and the frightening reality of the situation hit me hard. Though my friend and I made it back to shore unharmed, I was able to gain new insights into an old passion of mine. I was determined to create a tool that would serve as an integral component to the action sports experience, providing both social and safety advantages to users. The concept was named Tribe, paying homage to the vital and necessary human connections and social bonds formed during action sports.


I had a unique opportunity as an Industrial Design MFA to seek out and collaborate with other disciplines at Notre Dame. I sought out like-minded peers to help me develop both a working prototype and a viable business plan. The team is now made up of five individuals who have all passionately pursued their outdoor activities for several years. Whether in rock climbing, surfing, soccer, or sailing, everyone on the team has experienced that uneasy feeling when the rest of the group disappears from sight. This personal experience has led each member to be highly committed to the successful launch and commercialization of Tribe's smart compass. I embraced my role as team leader and proposed several questions that the team rallied around for the duration of the project:

1.   How can technology be recast to enhance and augment the action sports experience without mediating or distracting? 

2.   How can we enable people to meet new friends, share experiences with others, and foster a sense of camaraderie?



Tribe's smart compass helps outdoor enthusiasts stay together by providing an off-the-grid communication device designed specifically for their environment. There are several emerging trends that serve as a direct backdrop to this market opportunity and our solution:


New sports are frequently emerging. Recently, paddleboarding equipment sales and rentals have exploded.


Family trips and friends bonding over a weekend outing are on the rise.


Outdoor sports enthusiasts participate in a variety of activities – surfing, mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, fishing, etc.


Meeting new people, a sense of community, and exploring nature motivate millennials.



Outdoor enthusiasts participate in a variety of activities from the sea to the mountains and their activities often take them off-the-grid (outside of cell/satellite service). The primary motivation during these activities is to stay together for two reasons: camaraderie and safety.

Individuals attempt to meet up with a group that has already set out and all too frequently are unable to find them. Often the competencies of the individuals dictate their speed. Consequently, the group is split up and is left to attempt to reconnect later. 

In every survival situation, the golden rule is to stay together. ‘Self rescue’ is far more likely to be successful than any sort of ‘search/rescue party’.


Venturing off the grid strengthens bonds between close friends and also often creates an environment in which new friendships can flourish. It is the adventure that is enticing for sports enthusiasts, yet it presents a unique set of challenges once the group leaves conventional communication ranges and subjects themselves to harsh elements. Think of this scenario for the following activities: 

On crowded beaches, crowds of people blend together from even the shortest distance. You can no longer distinguish between those you’re trying to look out for, and everyone else in the water, especially when you factor in that most wetsuits are black in color. On remote beaches, the needs of the surfer skew towards safety making it essential that the group stays together in these areas.

Cellphones usually accompany these users, as most resorts have adequate cell service. However, they do not serve to help groups and families stay together. Instead, they attempt to rectify the problem after it has arisen by helping people find each other after they are split up. More adventurous groups who ski backcountry are completely disconnected. These groups bring walkie-talkies or light/sound beacons with them, as safety is a primary concern.



Users currently use a variety of methods to stay connected and safe:

The most common resources these users carry. However, they have significant limitations. They are only able to only work when on a cellular network, they are not designed for the elements (e.g. water, impact, sand, ice, dust), and they are typically kept in pockets or backpacks making them inaccessible in the midst of activities or following a severe injury.

Typically kept in pockets or backpacks making them less accessible and best used to reconnect rather than stay connected.

Light Beacons
Provides only a visual stimulus that can be obstructed. Typically used by users at risk for avalanche or when in dangerous marine conditions.

Audible Beacons
It can be very difficult to echo-locate your group. These are used typically for users at risk of an avalanche. Yet, the sound is rarely helpful due to the sound echoing across the valley.

GPS Watch
Expensive and still depends on a clear view of the sky. It also only provides details of your location but not anyone else in your group and thus does not help groups stay together.

Regardless of the activity, staying together – whether for social reasons or safety – is a significant concern for these users. Despite several tools trying to solve this problem, none yet focus on the prevention rather than the aftermath of the problem. And as of yet, there are no adequate solutions.



Tribe has developed a wearable ‘smart compass’ that displays the location of each member of the group without depending on any existing cell or satellite network. The visual display shows the distance and direction of each member of your group within a 7 mile radius. It is durable and designed to withstand the elements. The device can also send simple notifications to other members of the group. These can be activity notifications or even an SOS alert.



I conducted an ethnographic research study of outdoor sports enthusiasts. I engaged professional and avid surfers, rookie adventurists, hikers, skiers, snowboarders, and other outdoor enthusiasts. I collected data using contextual user interviews, self-documentation, guerrilla observation, user journals, and expert interviews. From this data I was able to understand customers’ needs and motivations. I also learned how they are currently solving the problem of staying together. This user research proved the market is looking for a solution to keep them connected to their group during these activities.

In order to reach a broader audience, I fielded a market research study with Vennli. This study surveyed over 125 outdoor sport enthusiasts in an effort to verify that there were indeed unmet needs with the current market solutions (smartphone, handheld GPS, walkie talkies). Pictured below are the results of the gap analysis between smartphones and handheld GPS devices.




As we have established, there are a variety of occasions and use cases for a smart compass. However, we will initially focus our limited resources on a specific market. The goal will be to deeply penetrate one market and learn what tactics work, and to then scale into other tangential markets. We will initially target surfers for a variety of reasons:

  • Surfers make regular visits to the ocean and many do so year round
  • 54% sight their primary motivator is to go surf with friends and family
  • Every year there are 2.6 million participants within the USA and the industry has been valued to reach $13.2 billion by 2017
  • Surfers cross-participate in other action sports (e.g. skiing, snowboarding, hiking, rock climbing)
  • They are looking for solutions to improve the sport (e.g. special shark camouflage wetsuits, equipment to extend their surf season, new board technology, performance-based surf clothing)

One of the clearest differentiators is our incorporation of location technology. No product on the market, fitness or other, has this ability. This is an especially important feature during action sports, as your phone is either in a backpack, on the beach, or stowed in your car to protect it from damage.



GoTenna and BearTooth are using similar technology to extend the usefulness of a smart phone by allowing users to continue messaging their friends even when there is no cell reception by converting their devices into long-range radios. One such use occasion, is when these groups have fallen ‘off-the-grid’. The success  of these start-up companies validate the viability of the technology and the general market need for improving connectivity when current infrastructures fail.

The unmet needs of adventurers have been identified and can be solved through the adoption of Tribe. They value sharing experiences, building camaraderie, progressing as a group, and telling their story. Tribe is a reflection of the common thread of human connectivity, as valid today as it was for our earliest ancestors. It highlights the need for human interaction, the forging of alliances, and the importance of telling stories and exchanging ideas.

Photo: Chris Burkard

Photo: Chris Burkard



Tribe enables live location tracking and instant communication between Tribe devices. This is possible without the need for smartphone tethering – a common drawback of many activity trackers and smart watches currently on the market. The technology behind Tribe keeps users connected during activities in virtually any landscape. This is leveraged through the use of long-range radio technology capable of sending and receiving signals up to seven miles away. 

Key aspects of usability are as follows:

  • A private network for your group can be established so that only your specific tribe has access.
  • Tribe devices are waterproof and durable enough for these activities.
  • A tap-sensitive interface is simple to use for those wearing gloves. An accelerometer is capable of recognizing and distinguishing between taps from a finger and impacts.
  • A mesh network is able to extend the range of the device.


Design & Engineering



View real-time locations of friends and family. Tribe allows users to actively track other devices in their network.


Send and receive pre-programmed short reply messages from the Tribe device or app.

– Maps

View location maps of friends and other adventurers. Also view heatmaps of spots with high ratings and activity.

–Pro Athletes

Follow pro athletes, musicians, and Tribe Ambassadors as they broadcast selected locations to their fans and followers.


Device-to-device communication is possible through the use of long-range radio technology.

–Hazard Alerts

Receive hazard alerts directly to your Tribe device. Know about tagged sharks, weather warnings, and other threats without having to rely on a smartphone.

–Share adventures

Share your specific activity so friends can join you and bring the proper gear and equipment.


View weather information on your Tribe and Tribe app, such as sunrise/sunset, temperature, moon phase, and tide.

User interface



Tribe utilizes touch capacitive sensors in its tap-based UI. Specific tap locations lead the user throughout the various menus, options, and functions of the device. An internal accelerometer is capable of recognizing and distinguishing between taps from a finger and impacts sustained from athletic endeavors. Tapping the sides of the device bring the user back or forward. A tap on the top will select the current menu item. When the face of the device is tapped, the selected menu item will be entered. The right side of the device is capable of slide scrolling. Small physical buttons were eliminated in the design process due to common problems with wet, numb, or cold fingers during activity in harsh conditions.

long-range radio

Tribe utilizes long-range radio technology to communicate between devices and smartphones up to 7 miles away. Bluetooth and Wifi are only capable of 300 and 30 feet, respectively. Whether you are on land or at sea, Tribe will be one of the most reliable assets of your equipment.



The waterproof/shockproof/shitproof polypropylene housing means fewer worries when it comes to adventure. The Tribe smart compass is rugged enough to withstand any abuse common with action sports.


The unit may be charged by placing it on top of the charger plate. Magnets will properly align the unit so the bolts are in contact with the induction charging points. Connect this charging plate to any mini USB cable and charging device – a portable solar panel charger will truly allow the user to remain off the grid for an extended period of time.


The baseplate clip attachment helps accommodate users' needs by giving them the option of clipping their Tribe to clothing, straps, belts, bags, or equipment. One baseplate option includes a keyring, bottle opener, screwdriver, and ruler...but yes, you can always just keep it in your pocket or throw it in a bag.


A functioning proof-of-concept prototype was developed and is pictured below. This prototype was engineered to demonstrate two distinct and crucial features of the hardware/software ecosystem: activity notification and tribe member location. Activity notification allows users send notifications of a specific activity from the device to the other members of the user’s tribe via the cloud.

The possibility of determining the location of two active athletes was confirmed during controlled events staged inside a local parking garage. In the testing, several runs were recorded and compared using a bicycle and a skateboard. The results were compared, analyzed, and logged, offering validation that the data being gathered by the onboard long-range radio was, in fact, correlating to the biker and skateboarder in motion. 

to be continued...