The internet of things is expected to be in 50 billion everyday objects within five years. Including, possibly, your baby's onesie.
Before her baby was born, Nicole, now a 30-year-old Bay Area mom, opened an email from a friend containing a screenshot of a newfangled baby monitor that straps onto an infant while she is sleeping and sends a continuous stream of data to its parents, including the baby's breathing rate.
"My friend was joking, saying, 'Ugh, what else are we going to monitor?' " Nicole told me earlier this winter. "I remember thinking, 'I am so going to end up getting this!' "
Nicole, who prefers that her last name not be published, isn't exactly a helicopter parent. But she kept the newborn--a healthy girl--by her side night and day for most the child's first two months in the world. When the family's pediatrician recommended the infant start sleeping in a crib in its own room, Nicole bristled--but decided to comply. First, she set up a video monitor aimed at the baby's crib. That made her feel a bit better. Then she thought back to that email, clicked over to Babies 'R' Us, and bought a Mimo--a green, plastic-coated, plum-size, turtle-shape device.
That first night of the new sleep regimen, Nicole dressed her baby in a Mimo-outfitted onesie--the device snugly strapped to the infant's abdomen--and left her in her crib in the nursery. Back in her own bed with her husband, Nicole felt too worried to close her eyes. She felt a continent away from her baby, even though the infant was sleeping soundly just a few feet away in her own room. But she had a solution. "Being able to look at my phone and see that she was breathing--that's all that mattered," she said. "It calmed at least some of my anxiety."
The Mimo Baby Monitor--that Bluetooth-enabled device that beams an infant's breathing rate, body position, and skin temperature to parents' smartphones--is made by one of a handful of startups that are targeting a lucrative market teeming with uncertainties and apprehensions, the one known as new parents. As with the Mimo, most of these souped-up baby-monitoring gadgets are wearable--as in, they're worn by the baby. Other innovative infant bio-trackers on the market now, or ones that will be available within a few months, include a data-logging baby scale, a nutrition-monitoring bottle, and a smart diaper that analyzes the content of what lands in it to track a baby's health.
The Mimo was first to market this past year. Another company will soon ship a baby ankle-bracelet called the Sproutling, which retails for $299. It's a soft-looking, gray cloth band that contains a snap-in sensor encapsulated in red silicone, and shaped something like a caricatured version of the Star Trek emblem, if that show had a For Kids! spin-off. Like the Mimo, when the sleeping baby wears it, the Sproutling communicates to parents' cell phones--via a Wi-Fi-enabled base station--the child's heart rate, skin temperature, and position in the crib. That base station also senses humidity, temperature, and noise levels in the baby's room. The Sproutling will take 1,000 measurements per minute, and is designed to track (and eventually predict) a child's sleeping patterns, so parents can know, with a glance at their phones, hey, baby Sophia is awake and fussy--before they decide to enter the room to see for themselves.
It may sound like the data-collecting nanny state is at risk of converging with the baby-monitoring nanny cam. But before you get too concerned about that, consider this: Some experts questions the soundness of all that collected information. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician, father, and director of the Center for Childhood Health, Behavior, and Development at the Seattle Children's Research Institute, says that while mining mass biometric data is considered a holy grail for many tech companies, the current manner in which they're doing so raises concerns over how accurate that data really is. This is true, he says, not merely for emerging companies with new monitors, but also for existing in-hospital infant monitors, which he says track similar biometrics--and emit false alarms far more frequently than fair warnings.
Even in the carefully monitored confines of a hospital setting, any such alarm rattles new parents. How might they react when they're on their own at home? "It's just one more way for parents to become unduly nervous and concerned" about things they needn't worry over, he says. "It's taking helicopter parenting to a new level."
Jennifer Senior, the author of All Joy and No Fun, which details the evolution of parenthood, says such health-trackers represent "the apotheosis of the privilege of the child, where the child runs the family." She points out that our modern notion of "parenting" is relatively new--the verb came into widespread use in the 1970s, before which time children were seen as economically useful (say, as farmhands or helpers to their mothers), not as "emotionally priceless."
How things have changed. "We are now willing to have this aquarium of trackers on them," she says. "Like they are a NASA shuttle on a grid."
But there is significant appeal here to new parents today, according to Chris Bruce, a serial entrepreneur who founded San Francisco-based Sproutling after experiencing the vast difference between the infant behaviors of his two children. The Sproutling app will not only communicate an estimated duration of the child's sleep--"Sophia will wake up in about 45 minutes"--but will also alert parents to some potential hazards, such as when the baby gets too warm or too cold, or if she flips onto her stomach (which many parents won't allow, since some studies associate that position with an increased risk of sudden infant death).
As Bruce himself learned, all babies sleep and behave differently. Bruce boasts that Sproutling will learn what's "normal" for any individual baby--and alert parents when something abnormal occurs. "We are using data to make parents more effective," says Bruce. "Traditional baby monitors are just an extension of parents' eyes and ears. What we want to do is leverage data and turn it into insights for parents." Sproutling has raised $2.6 million from venture capitalists, and is shipping its preview orders to its first customers in March.
And it's just one of at least three new baby wearables debuting in 2015.
Over the past few years, the Fitbit and other wearable technologies have eked their way into mainstream conceptions of health and fitness. More than 75 million people have used MyFitnessPal to monitor their exercise or caloric intake. Smart scales report their progress back to an app. All this self-monitoring and data-collecting has been dubbed the "quantified self" movement, though it's becoming so commonplace it barely needs such a geek-niche moniker. (Think you're not part of it? Your phone might be: The "Health" app on new iPhones automatically tracks your steps and how many flights of stairs you've climbed.)
Nicole has worn a Nike Fuelband herself, and sees the connection between tracking steps and watching her baby's heartbeat. While the Fuelband never concerned her, she was worried about strapping an electronic device to her newborn. What changed her mind? Her husband is an electric engineer, and he assured her that while he might not check the app as frequently as she would, it would be perfectly safe. Parents prone to more baroque fears, like an exploding battery (which has happened in rare instances with e-cigarettes and at least one smartphone in 2013), may not need to worry either--or, rather, not worry so much about that, says John Drengenberg, an independent engineer at product-safety firm Underwriters Laboratories.
Drengenberg went on to say that while statistics on these new devices are hard to come by, there are several distinct areas of concern in terms of strapping wearables on infants. He said while low-energy Bluetooth--the wireless technology these devices generally use--is not necessarily a health concern, studies have found conflicting and ultimately inconclusive evidence about various frequencies and their effects on human cells. (Such concerns surfaced, you might recall, when cell phones first became ubiquitous.) "As a parent, I'd ask: 'How far is this transmitting from the baby's head?' And with an infant that's rather close," Drengenberg says.
Those behind Mimo chose low-energy Bluetooth to power its device "specifically because it's super low-power," says Dulcie Madden, CEO of Mimo's parent company, Rest Devices. The net effect, Madden says, in terms of Drengenberg's concerns, is that using a Mimo is "like having a traditional baby monitor in the room."
The Mimo Smart Baby Monitor ($199 for a starter kit) that Nicole used consists of that hard green plastic turtle, and three onesies. The turtle snaps to the left abdomen on the onesies, which come in three sizes, and will fit babies up to 12 months old. (The kit also comes with a charging and Wi-Fi station--dubbed a "lilypad," of course--a cord, and a plug.) It was created by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology alums who had been working on a way to measure adults' breathing patterns while they slept. Two years ago, armed with an early version of their proprietary technology, they decided to focus on babies.
"A baby who rolls around a lot might need different alert systems than one who doesn't," says Madden. But individual data is only part of the picture. All those babies around the world wearing the Mimo, which sold out in its first shipment to Babies 'R' Us last year, are collectively throwing off a lot of information. Which opens up new possibilities for the company. As Madden puts it, "Parents want to know, first, is their baby OK? and second, is their baby normal?"
Two other companies working on devices, called Owlet Care and MonBaby, are also manufacturing wearable baby monitors that will debut this year. The Owlet is a single bootie with a round, plastic, pastel button that works with an app to alert parents of changes in a baby's heart rate and oxygen levels. MonBaby, which raised $16,300 last year on Kickstarter, makes a round, plastic, pastel button that snaps onto a baby's outfit and communicates breathing, motion, and position data to a smartphone app. Both are available for pre-order, for $250 and $169 respectively.
Internet-of-things company Withings, a maker of home monitors and activity trackers, is at work on baby-geared products, too, and its growth tracker, called the Smart Kid Scale ($179), is already on the market. It works with lots of existing apps--and is perhaps the closest thing the quantified-baby movement, if we can now call it that, has to mainstream traction.
The marketing for all of these forthcoming devices is aimed squarely at Millennials. (Eighty-three percent of new American moms fit this category, and 30 percent of them already use parenting apps, according to a 2014 report from BabyCenter, the parenting website owned by Johnson & Johnson.) In a video demonstrating the Sproutling cuff, a pair of young, hip-looking, city-dwelling parents fumble through temperature-testing bottles, changing diapers, and pumping breast milk, alongside commentary from a knowing and comforting-sounding narrator who declares, "Look, you've got this. Sure, sleep is maybe, like, never happening again." The video ends with the kicker: "Be a life-living, sleep-having, baby-raising badass."
MonBaby's website acknowleges this new breed of parents in its come-ons, too. "We designed MonBaby as a useful monitoring tool for anxious parents, allowing you to monitor your baby's breathing movements," it deadpans. "If there's no movement for 15 seconds? Ding! Your phone will alert you immediately."
The market is clearly tech-savvy, younger, first-time parents. When starting out on Sproutling, working out of Lemnos Labs in San Francisco, Bruce says he wanted to consider: "What behavior for parents are difficult for new parents? What sucks, for lack of a better term?"
Still, quantifying your baby may be just one more thing to drive already information-overloaded new parents crazy.
"I could see this as a flagrant instance of anxiety profiteering," says the author Senior, a mother herself. "Particularly new parents can drive themselves nuts, because they are already sleep deprived enough."
There's also the outstanding question: To what degree is all this stuff--a boatload of new infant health and sleep data--useful to parents anyway? The New York Times noted: "At the moment, it's hard to figure out what parents can do with this data or how it could actually help babies sleep better."
The medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center at Boston Children's Hospital, Claire McCarthy, recently blogged that parenting is about monitoring and caring for a baby--but it's also about letting go and trusting one's intuition. Which is not necessarily something for which these devices leave room.
Not only does technology fail sometimes, it's frequently confusing. As a doctor, there have definitely been times when a machine gives me data that don’t make sense. Sometimes a number can be off, but the child can be fine--or a number can be fine, but the child isn’t. Babies are more than their numbers and data--all of us are. I worry that if parents become fixated on the information they get from their gadgets, they won’t learn the rhythms of their babies, how to read cues, which noises mean something, which can be ignored or how to recognize the subtle signs of both illness and wellness.
Other questions loom. Will the requirements of the new technology--attaching Bluetooth gadgets very close to the skin of a newborn--freak out fussy parents? Is there simply something too creepy about affixing a digital nanny to a helpless baby--or effectively integrating a robot into the nursery, to monitor and record the biometrics of a human who's unable to consent? Reviewers are certainly skeptical. Fast Company asked if you really want to treat your child like a Tomagochi? ReadWrite put it more simply: "As bad ideas go, this is a doozie."
Drengenberg, the product safety expert, also noted that parents may want to educate themselves about any new device's chemical content--especially when it is coming into contact with an infant's skin. But his greatest concern isn't these new devices themselves; rather, it's the data they transmit.
"It's always possible when you're transmitting any signal--Bluetooth, or television, or anything--that someone else can pick it up," he says. "Just like your neighbors might be listening to your music, they might be able to pick up your baby's heart rate and health data."
Some of the backlash is fueled by emerging concepts for devices that seem even more absurd than an intelligent infant tracker. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year a French company called Slow Control showed off its Baby GiGL, a bottle system that keeps track of the quantity a baby drinks, and the speed at which she does so. Another similar device--a temperature and quantity tracker called the Sleevey--was a popular $85,000 Kickstarter campaign in early 2014.
Then there's tracking what comes out. Huggies made the joke first--or is it an imagined prototype?--in this Brazilian concept video for "TweetPee," a plastic device that would tweet at parents when their baby urinates. But a very real (and reputable) company is attempting this--and as a means to address serious health issues. It's called Pixie Scientific, and it makes diapers that analyze the fluid deposited in them. They display results on a frontal panel of the diaper. Parents scan the panel with their smartphone, and the company's algorithms--and the family's pediatrician--look for patterns indicating dehydration, kidney probems, and urinary tract infections. Launched in part by an Indiegogo campaign, the product isn't marketed toward the general population like Mimo or Sproutling. It is a medical device for at-risk infants.
Early adopters for the Mimos of the world, such as Nicole, may be enthusiastic. But "early adopter" is sometimes code for "outsider." When Nicole mentioned her baby's sleep tracker at work, the reaction silenced her. "Someone said, 'Geez. Is this what's next in the world?'" she recalls.
Still, so far, despite the skeptical reviews and the occasional raised eyebrow, demand for the devices is high. Sproutling sold out on pre-orders alone. Last year, Mimo's first shipment to Babies 'R' Us sold out nationwide within six weeks, and the company still reports struggling to keep up with demand. Up to 40 percent of new Mimo customers set up their device before their baby is born, and up to 80 percent of parents who purchase one are using it on a newborn, according to Madden.
Back in Nicole's house, her daughter is a year old. This past winter, it was too cold some nights for her to wear the Mimo onesie. She's also growing out of them. More significantly, the adults in her life have graduated from needing the Mimo as a security blanket. "You finally get to the point you are comfortable," Nicole says, with a distinct undertone of satisfaction.
These days, Nicole's daughter is fascinated with technology. Sometimes she grabs at one of her parents' iPhones, and she bops up and down whenever they're playing music. When she was younger, a different gadget tracked her movements. But it was always very unlikely it would be the last to do so.