FAM­ILY TECH

NEW GAD­GETS THAT AP­PEAL TO PARENTAL ANX­I­ETY ON DIS­PLAY IN LAS VE­GAS.

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FINANCIAL POST - MATT O’BRIEN

LAS VE­GAS • Ev­ery year, the CES gad­get show brings more de­vices promis­ing to make life a lit­tle bit eas­ier for har­ried par­ents.

Sure, the kids might love them too: who wouldn’t want a com­put­er­ized Harry Pot­ter wand that also teaches cod­ing? The Las Ve­gas show’s grow­ing “fam­ily tech” sec­tor en­com­passes prod­ucts that range from ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent toys and baby mon­i­tors to in­ter­net­con­nected breast pumps.

Their com­mon thread is an ap­peal to parental anx­i­ety about rais­ing smart kids, oc­cu­py­ing their time, track­ing their where­abouts and mak­ing sure they’re safe.

Some also come with sub­tle trade-offs. “Tech­nol­ogy makes us for­get what we know about life,” said psy­chol­o­gist Sherry Turkle, a pro­fes­sor at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy who stud­ies peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ships with ma­chines. She’s par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about ro­bots that seek to be­friend or babysit young chil­dren.

NOT-SO-IMAG­I­NARY FRIENDS

Take the cute, furry Woobo, meant to be a re­al­life ver­sion of a child’s imag­i­nary friend that can help set tooth-brush­ing rou­tines, an­swer com­plex ques­tions and play ed­u­ca­tional games. It’s part of a new cot­tage in­dus­try of so­cia­ble toys, which in­cludes ro­bots like Cozmo and Sony’s dog­like Aibo.

A gen­tle pull at the ears switches the screen-faced Woobo into lis­ten­ing mode. The US$149 toy talks in a child­like voice and makes a game out of bor­ing chores that might oth­er­wise re­quire a par­ent’s nag­ging. Its mak­ers say Woobo doesn’t glue kids to its screen be­cause it in­vites them to go find things in the home, help par­ents cook din­ner or play fam­ily games like cha­rades.

“Our fo­cus on the con­tent side is not to re­place par­ents,” said Shen Guo, who co­founded Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts-based Woobo after grad­u­at­ing from the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign. “It’s to en­hance fam­ily time.”

But its ap­peal for a child’s emo­tional at­tach­ment and nur­tur­ing sets off alarm bells for Turkle, who has been warn­ing against what she calls “ar­ti­fi­cial in­ti­macy” since the Ta­m­agotchi dig­i­tal pet craze of the 1990s.

Re­search has shown the ben­e­fits of chil­dren play­ing out their in­ner feel­ings and wor­ries by pro­ject­ing them onto in­ert dolls. But Turkle says that doesn’t work when the toys seem real enough to have their own feel­ings.

“Pre­tend em­pa­thy is not a good thing,” Turkle said. “Ev­ery­thing we know about chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ment is that if you read to a child, what’s go­ing on is the re­la­tion­ship, the talk­ing, the con­nec­tion, the men­tor­ing, the safety, the sense that peo­ple love learn­ing. Why do we think this is a good idea to give this to some ro­bot?”

IS YOUR BABY BREATH­ING?

Talk to mak­ers of the next gen­er­a­tion of baby mon­i­tors un­veiled at CES and you’d be sur­prised that gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren sur­vived in­fancy with­out ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence sys­tems an­a­lyz­ing their ev­ery breath.

“Ba­bies want to breathe. Ba­bies want to live,” says Colt Se­man, co-founder of Los An­ge­les-based startup Miku, which prom­ises to mon­i­tor breath­ing and heart rate with­out let­ting par­ents get overly worked up about it.

Un­like most past of­fer­ings, the lat­est crop of baby mon­i­tors that mea­sure vi­tal signs are “con­tact­less” — mean­ing they don’t work by at­tach­ing some elec­tron­ics to a baby’s sock or chest. Ray­baby’s de­vice re­sem­bles a one-eyed ro­bot that de­tects breath­ing pat­terns us­ing radar tech­nol­ogy. The non-ion­iz­ing ra­di­a­tion it emits is at low lev­els, but might still turn off some par­ents al­ready con­cerned about keep­ing their ba­bies too close to smart­phones.

Most of the other de­vices rely on com­puter vi­sion. A cam­era by Nanit watches a baby from above and mea­sures sleep­ing pat­terns by track­ing the slight move­ments of a spe­cial­ly­de­signed swad­dle. Nanit’s Aaron Pol­lack ac­knowl­edges that some par­ents might still check Nanit’s phone app to check breath­ing data five times a night “out of sheer anx­i­ety.”

“We’re not try­ing to pre­vent that,” he said. “We’re just try­ing to give you some peace of mind.”

JOHN LOCHER / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Woobo is meant to be a real-life ver­sion of a child’s imag­i­nary friend that can help set rou­tines.

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