EM­BRAC­ING ‘FAM­ILY TECH’

An­nual con­sumer show un­veils gad­gets that aim to ap­peal to ev­ery par­ent’s anx­i­eties

Vancouver Sun - - 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 in­ter­net-con­nected 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 healthy and 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 real-life 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 dog-like Aibo.

A gen­tle pull at the ears switches the screen-faced Woobo into lis­ten­ing mode. The US$149 toy talks in a child-like 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 co-founded Cam­bridge, Mass.-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.

Reg­u­la­tors haven’t ap­proved any baby mon­i­tors for med­i­cal use and in­stead rec­om­mend par­ents fo­cus on pro­vid­ing a safe sleep­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Some doc­tors worry that such de­vices cre­ate ad­di­tional stress for par­ents.

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. It also uses the data it col­lects to rec­om­mend more con­sis­tent sleep times. 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 piece of mind.”

Two oth­ers, Miku and Utah­based Smart­beat, each boast of a level of pre­ci­sion and an­a­lyt­i­cal rigour that could even­tu­ally help pre­dict when the baby is go­ing to get sick. Both have phone alert sys­tems to re­port wor­ri­some breath­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties. Smart­beat’s anal­y­sis is purely im­age-based, while Miku also uses radar. Miku’s sleeker hard­ware comes at a cost: It’s US$399, well above the US$250 Smart­beat.

TECH IN THE WOMB

Of course, parental anx­i­ety be­gins even be­fore a child is born — hence Owlet’s new US$299 preg­nancy band that wraps around a woman’s ab­domen to track fe­tal heart­beats by tak­ing an elec­tro­car­dio­gram. The idea is to put on the stretchy band be­fore go­ing to sleep start­ing about three to four months be­fore the due date.

It sends a morn­ing well­ness re­port to a user’s smart­phone app, with de­tails in­clud­ing an ex­pec­tant mother’s con­trac­tions and sleep po­si­tions — and warn­ings if fe­tal heart­beat or move­ments fall out­side ac­cept­able ranges.

An owl-faced medal­lion above the mother’s belly gives the band the look of a su­per­hero em­blem — and why not? Preg­nancy is tough.

“It’s re­ally just hav­ing that ex­tra piece of mind, be­tween doc­tor’s vis­its, that ev­ery­thing is OK,” said Owlet spokes­woman Misty Bond.

JOHN LOCHER/AP

Owlet’s new US$299 preg­nancy band tracks fe­tal heart­beats by tak­ing an elec­tro­car­dio­gram. It is meant for women to use be­fore go­ing to sleep about three to four months be­fore the due date.

JOHN LOCHER/AP

The US$149 Woobo is a talk­ing ro­bot is part of a new cot­tage in­dus­try of so­cia­ble toys. It can help set tooth­brush­ing rou­tines, play ed­u­ca­tional games and an­swer com­plex ques­tions.

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