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Key to Future May Be No Keys at All : The Remote-Controlled Lock Is a Reality, Which Could Make Those Things You’re Always Losing Obsolete

Times Staff Writer

Douglas Pinnow has a vision of the future.

In his vision, people no longer fumble with car keys on dark and rainy nights. The missing house key under the flower pot is a problem of the past. And swooning concert-goers don’t throw hotel keys at the feet of handsome crooners; instead, they toss tiny, Buck Rogers-like transmitters bearing secret codes.

Pinnow predicts that by the year 2000, give or take a few years, the age of the keyless society will be upon us. The key-operated lock--an idea invented by the Egyptians around 2,000 B.C.--will gradually become a relic of the past.

Or so he hopes.

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“You know it’s going to happen,” said Pinnow, founder of Universal Photonics, a small Laguna Hills company that has developed a keyless locking system for cars, homes and offices. “The idea of carrying around mechanical keys . . . is about as archaic as carrying around IBM punch cards.”

Work Is Already Under Way

Some of the industry’s leading manufacturers share Pinnow’s belief. They have begun developing, and in some cases marketing, high-tech products designed to replace the traditional lock and key.

“One thing we have always had in the back of our minds is that we want to be prepared for a time when there will be no more keys,” said Stephan W. Cole, president of Cleveland-based American Consumer Products, the maker of Cole key blanks. “There will be a time when we have a keyless society.”

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Cole and other experts say electronic locking systems offer more convenience and security than mechanical locks. But manufacturers have been hesitant to convert to electronic keyless systems, particularly for the car and home, for two main reasons: The products were prohibitively expensive, and there is uncertainty whether consumers will be willing to forgo the sense of security that keys have come to represent.

The changeover to keyless locks “is going to be dictated by human psychology,” Cole said. “Most of us have a love-hate battle with keys. We hate to carry them around. On the other hand, we like strong, heavy keys and the security they give us. I think the psychology of carrying keys is very important.”

In fact, keyless locks have already begun showing up in commercial locations such as hotels and offices. Many hotels rooms are now outfitted with electronic keyless locks. A typical kind of hotel lock is one in which a guest inserts a magnetic-striped card into a slot in the door. The cards offer more security because they cannot be duplicated like metal keys and are easily replaced if lost.

‘Commercial Side Leads Consumer Side’

“The commercial side of this business leads the consumer side by 10 years,” said Patrick G. Murphy, marketing manager for San Francisco-based Schlage Lock Co., one of the nation’s leading residential lockset makers. “As the technology goes into hotels and industry, it will begin to affect the consumer market.”

In January, 1989, Schlage will become one the first companies to market a residential lockset that works with or without a key. The product, which will sell for $85 and up per door, is similar to a combination lock. To unlock the door, a person uses the doorknob to dial a three- or four-digit code from numbers displayed digitally above the lock. Schlage calls its product Key ‘N Keyless.

“People are a lot more confident today with electronics than they were 10 years ago,” Murphy said. “Schlage has been in the lock business for more than 60 years, and this is probably the biggest breakthrough to come down the pike.”

An Orange County company, Computerized Security Systems in Garden Grove, sells the Gibraltor computerized lock system for hotels and industry. When a guest checks into a hotel, the front-desk clerk magnetically encodes a special key with one of 238 million different “combinations.” The code is changed each time a new guest uses the room.

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Computerized Security, whose parent firm, Masco Co., also owns Weiser Lock in Huntington Beach, is also developing a lower-cost, residential version of the Gibraltor lock, according to sales director Michael J. Reynolds.

Universal Photonics calls its keyless entry device the Photon Security System. The company is marketing the device primarily to auto and lock manufacturers, but has sold only a few prototype devices so far. However, the small company scored a public relations victory when General Motors’ Pontiac division equipped its futuristic concept car, the Banshee, with the Photon product.

But Pontiac chose another supplier, Wickes Manufacturing of Troy, Mich., for a keyless lock system that is being test-marketed on 1989 Grand Prix models. The system, which is offered as optional equipment for $125, is similar to the Universal Photonics devices. It has a miniature radio transmitter that can be attached to a key ring. The driver presses one of three buttons to lock and unlock the doors and trunk.

Stuart Pierce, a Pontiac product planner, said the biggest advantages of keyless systems are security and convenience. “If it’s dark outside, for example, you don’t need to struggle to find the keyhole and scratch your car up with the key. And this allows the driver to get into his or her car quickly.”

Universal Photonics has also attracted the attention of Anaheim-based Kwikset, the nation’s leading maker of residential locksets. Kwikset’s parent company, Connecticut-based Emhart Corp., is considering a joint-development project with the Laguna Hills company to produce a keyless residential lockset, according to Harold Spielberg, Universal Photonic’s executive vice president.

Pinnow, the firm’s president, has equipped his gold Buick with the same kind of device. Standing in a garage outside the company’s offices in Laguna Hills, Pinnow zaps open his car door by pressing a button on his Dick Tracy-like wristwatch. The watch uses an infrared beam of light to trigger the lock mechanism.

By pushing one of four buttons on the watch, Pinnow also can open the car’s trunk, adjust the rear-view mirror and switch on an anti-theft device. He also has programmed his watch--which contains a tiny custom microchip--to open the doors of his garage and office.

Universal Photonics is being partially bankrolled by Briggs & Stratton Corp., the dominant supplier of mechanical door locks to the U.S. auto industry. The Wauwatosa, Wis., company owns 40% of Universal Photonics and has invested $1 million in the company in exchange for certain marketing rights to future products.

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“I can’t say that everybody in our organization was overwhelmingly impressed with the Photon security system the first time they saw it,” said Harry Stratton, a vice president of Briggs & Stratton Technologies. “But once they got to playing around with it, they absolutely fell in love with it. . . . Anybody who can figure out a digital watch can make this thing work.”

Stratton said auto makers who have seen demonstrations of the Photon system have reacted enthusiastically. But, he noted, “there is a big difference between being intrigued with something and putting it into an automobile program.”

In 1983, Pinnow, an expert in fiber-optic technology, was working as a vice president in charge of the holography division at Newport Corp., a Fountain Valley technology firm, when he began thinking about how light-wave signals could be used as a transmitting device for everyday applications.

‘Could Replace All the Keys’

“It didn’t take long to pose the proposition that one could create an electronic device that could replace all the keys that people carry around in their pockets,” he said.

Pinnow enrolled in a course on high-tech entrepreneurism at UC Irvine, where he prepared a business plan for the company that is now Universal Photonics.

“I was itching to do something on my own,” he said. “And I was at a point in my life where I could afford to take a risk.”

After receiving a doctoral degree in physics from Cornell University, Pinnow joined the Navy and worked as an engineer on the development of nuclear-powered submarines. His career also includes stints as a researcher at AT&T;'s Bell Laboratories; as an assistant manager of the chemical-physics department at Hughes Research Laboratories and as director of research at Times Fiber Communications.

Selling the idea of a wristwatch that opens car doors has sometimes required more than a little inventiveness.

Universal Photonic’s Spielberg recalls an incident a few years back when a top marketing executive at General Motors’ Chevrolet division wasn’t returning his phone calls. In frustration, Spielberg finally called again and told the executive’s secretary to leave a message that “Mr. Spielberg from Universal” had called. This time, the Chevrolet executive called him back.

He Has Sold This and That

Spielberg is a 22-year corporate marketing veteran whose earlier career included stints selling razors, jeans and wine with Gillette Co., Levi Strauss & Co. and RJR Nabisco’s Heublein subsidiary. He worked as a consultant to Pinnow before joining the company full time in July, 1986.

Turning Universal Photonics’ dream of a keyless society into reality could take years, and Pinnow concedes that the company needs to raise more money to continue its marketing efforts. The company is trying to raise $2 million through a private sale of stock to supplement the Briggs & Stratton investment. Spielberg said the company has talked with “seven or eight” venture-capital firms, but none has yet stepped forward to be the lead investor.

Pinnow remains confident that the “sleepy little” lock industry eventually will wake up to the need for change.

“The industry developed its production techniques in the late 1800s, and there’s been no need for them to make abrupt changes,” he said. “But they will have to react to some of the things we believe will happen.”


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