BBC News

Baby baby: The tech that rocks the cradle

By Padraig Belton
Business reporter

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionI got you babe: The sooner you get them started, the sooner they'll be building that million dollar app

One day, your grandchildren will be incredulous you survived the cradle without masses of technology.

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a traditional hotbed of new gadgetry, has rattled with tech for tots over the last few years.

Inexpensive and power-efficient bluetooth technology and a handy abundance of smartphones has helped deliver this bump in toddler tech.

And even more, young tech entrepreneurs have started families and found themselves with babies to experiment with.

So when it's time for the next mad dash to the hospital, now you can nab your bluetooth pacifier, smart baby bottle, and crying analyser.

To determine whether your new sprog is hungry, bored, tired, or just doesn't like you.

Womb service

Kirstin Hancock was acting deputy head teacher in an inner London primary school.

But when she had a sick baby, she and her husband decided to found Blue Maestro, specialising in bluetooth-enabled gadgets.

"I was always taking Olivia's temperature, and could never get an accurate reading in her mouth or in her ear," she says.

"So in frustration one day I threw up my hands, and said, I need a pacifier that can do this."

The result was Pacif-i. It is a baby dummy containing a thermometer, and sends readings to a parent's smartphone by bluetooth. Now in pre-order, it ships in May.

It will alert you when your baby has a fever, and whether medicine is having an effect.

And a proximity sensor can trigger alarms if a child crawls out of a defined area.

Only in the last few years, says Mrs Hancock, has bluetooth technology become sufficiently energy efficient.

"The power consumption is very small, so a coin-cell battery will last over the lifetime of the pacifier," she says.

"There's no need to recharge it at all."

image copyrightBlue Maestro
image captionSmart dummy: The Pacif-i can take your baby's temperature
image copyrightBlue Maestro
image captionInventor Kirstin Hancock came up with the idea after having problems taking her own baby's temperature

Jacques Lépine is an engineer in Paris and chief executive of Slow Control.

One day, he was feeding his infant son, unsuccessfully.

"And my wife suddenly comes after me, and she's not happy with what I'm doing," he says.

He was holding the bottle inexpertly, and the baby was growing tired without finishing his meal.

So Mr Lépine went to design a bottle which adjusts its own angle, then sends off data by bluetooth about how much a baby has eaten, and when.

The Gigl bottles are now in mass production in China.

Mr Lépine plans to move to Silicon Valley to develop the company further.

But he says France has been a "magic place to engineer, and design, because we have what we call polyvalence, you can do a lot of things differently."

Lately I've been losing sleep

Physicist Dr Michael Feigenson and Dr Miriam Goldstein, an Arabic literature scholar who studied at Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar, live in Jerusalem's German Colony with their three children.

They say their app, SoundSleeper, "started mainly from our personal needs".

It plays noises which help babies to sleep - rain, and less intuitively, hoovering sounds.

A listening mode watches out for a squawking baby, and cues the soporific sounds.

And it tracks and graphs how the baby slept each night.

One technical challenge was teaching the app to distinguish baby squawks from passing sirens. Another was to loop sounds without a break - simple, it turns out, in iOS, very difficult in Android.

Now Soundsleeper is in the App Store's top 100.

Dr Feigenson and Dr Goldstein feel they are part of a Jerusalem start-up scene which they call "very much a feature of this country".

image copyrightSound Sleeper
image captionDr Michael Feigenson and Dr Miriam Goldstein, founders of Sound Sleeper with their children

Inventor Ethan Schur, at Silicon-Valley based Grush, decided to tackle teething problems with toothbrushes.

Both he and co-founder Dr Yong-Jing Wang have small boys, who tended to brush aside cleaning their teeth.

And Dr Wang ended up with a very expensive dentists' bill.

Their solution was gamification - in other words, a bluetooth-enabled toothbrush with games to visualise brushing, that gives a score when the child finishes.

It is then uploaded to the cloud, where mum or dad can check their progress. You can brush your way through something like Guitar Hero, or brush off monsters hiding in your teeth.

Mr Schur and Dr Wang first had the idea in 2006, but developments in wearable technology, smartphones, and the cloud came together for them in 2013, when they formed the company.

They held a crowdfunding campaign last year on Indiegogo, and launched Grush in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, where Wired Magazine called it one of the ten things most worth seeing.

image copyrightMichael O'Donnell @PHOTO ZatPhoto
image captionThe Grush is designed to encourage tooth brushing

The crying game

And yes, the baby-to-English decoder.

Or actually Spanish, as its inventor is Dr Pedro Monagas, of Barcelona's Polytechnic University of Catalonia.

When his son was born, he says, he cried a great deal.

Dr Monagas made recordings of him crying, and asked friends to pass him recordings of their babies.

Then he analysed the waveforms. And found tears of hunger, fatigue, stress, annoyance, and boredom look quite different.

Conducting hospital tests, in Barcelona, Mexico City, and Seoul, he found a computer programme could distinguish the cause of distress from the waveform, and get it right, on average 95% of the time.

Hunger produces energetic, sharp shouts. Fatigue leads to moans. And stress, intense, short cries.

Dr Monagas compares his WhyCry with having a grandparent handy, to help new parents eventually understand their babies without it.

image copyrightWhyCry
image captionThe WhyCry app can analyse your baby's cries and decode what they mean

It's silly to ask whether baby apps are good or bad, says Dr Dmitri Christakis, professor of paediatrics at the University of Washington and director of the Child Health Institute.

And engaging technology passively, with an iPad becoming like a television, is different to interactive, slower-paced baby apps, he says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently counsels parents to minimise or eliminate screen time for children under two.

However, argues Dr Christakis, this guidance is "dated and ill-advised" - what about Skypeing distant grandparents, he asks?

Academic research has lagged slightly behind technological development.

Of the best learning-orientated baby apps, he says, "they may very well prove to have some educational benefits, that's to be shown."

Tech for tots is still in its infancy. But it's now racing forward by much more than baby steps.

Related Topics

  • Apps