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New tech aims to get kids off the couch

No more nagging about playing video games past bedtime. Hopscotch wants to keep kids from being glued to gadgets.

There's a new boss in the house, and his name is Bob.

Bob is a new time monitor device from start-up Hopscotch Technology that let parents control how much time their children spend watching television, playing video games or using the computer.

Bob consists of a timer and a reporter box. A device's plug is locked into Bob, which is then plugged into a wall outlet. Parents assign their children a certain amount of time on the device by day or week, and when it's up, Bob cuts the current.

Bob comes out in April for $89. Hopscotch, based in Boulder, Colo., said that results from initial tests with 40 families across the country have been positive.

"The only consistent quote was that it brought peace to the house," said Hopscotch President Brian Baker. "Parents argue with their kids about media all the time, almost daily. After using Bob one or two days, the kids accept that 'this is mum and dad's rule, and we can't do anything about it.' It becomes a nonissue."

Credit: Hopscotch
Media time management device Bob,
which switches off the TV at parents'
will, aims to move kids from the
sofa to the playground.

Many families apparently asked if they could buy the test units--and some wouldn't take no for an answer, Baker said. "We still can't get two of them back. They won't even answer our calls any longer," he said with a laugh.

The company was started when Tom Gallop, a stressed-out careerist and father of three, fled his busy work lifestyle and moved to Boulder to spend more time with his family. But Gallop soon realized that his children didn't have a lot of time for him--they were stuck in front of the TV.

At a neighborhood picnic, Gallop aired his concern to neighbor and product developer Brian Baker. Baker shared Gallop's feeling that the bikes, baseball fields and tree huts of their childhoods had all been swapped for the living-room couch.

A few months later the duo formed Hopscotch.

Bob allows each customer to have up to six user accounts and requires a PIN for it to be switched on. Apart from restricting the amount of time on a device, parents can also block out certain hours, to keep their kids from playing video games after bedtime or from watching TV when they should be doing homework.

Baker said that managing the amount of time that children spend on digital devices is crucial for the their well-being and intellectual development.

"The average child now spends almost as much time in school as they do watching television. That's crazy. The kids end up eating junk food. Child obesity has skyrocketed the last few years," he said.

So what are they supposed to do instead? To Baker, the answer is easy: . The tested children who were under age 10 adjusted almost immediately and instead played with toys or friends. "Older kids are lost for a few days; they don't know what to do. Teenage boys get angry with it and try to break into it or figure it out. But after a day or two they are done," he said.

Gallop and Baker believe that there is a huge market for Bob. They referred to a U.S. Census Survey which showed that 92 percent of parents make rules about video games and television, but 75 percent fail to enforce them.

"The whole idea is to give the media industry the impetus to buy our software. This should be in TVs, PlayStations and all. You could even put it on teenagers' phones," Baker said. He's not sure that the TV companies share his enthusiasm though, because limited TV time could mean less income from commercials.

Hopscotch talked to both Sony and Microsoft about integrating the feature in their game consoles when it displayed Bob at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. While Sony was not taken with the idea, Microsoft showed interest.

"Their No. 1 complaint is time. If you give the kid an Xbox machine Christmas morning, you won't see that kid until Jan. 1, when he or she shows up for food. So the parents sometimes take away the boxes or don't buy new games because the kids get addicted," Baker said.

He claims that it's not only children who benefit from less tech time. Apart from spending more time with their children, grown-ups also have the chance to help each other get rid of their own bad habits. "Take our CEO--his wife only gives him four hours of football on a Sunday. And that's it," Baker said.