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VersaMe Starling review: Starling could encourage early language development in children

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Stanford psychologists have spent years tracking the effects of verbally engaging infants and toddlers. Kids who get consistent interaction and those who don't are divided by a so-called language gap. This gap in speech and comprehension is evident in children as young as 18 months, and by the time kids enter kindergarten, there can be as much as a 2-year developmental disparity.

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6.6

VersaMe Starling

The Good

Starling benefits from a unique vocabulary-tracking concept and promising technology.

The Bad

There aren't enough features to justify the high price.

The Bottom Line

I love what Starling is trying to do, and with some added features, it could be a great gadget for many parents. The problem is, the device boils down to a $200 reminder to talk to your kid, without enough sophistication to justify the price.

Enter Starling by VersaMe: a $200 gadget that aims to close that gap. Starling clips to your child's clothes and tracks how many words they hear each day -- a good indicator of later success. On the iOS app (an Android app is on the way), you can follow your hourly, daily, weekly and monthly patterns of interaction, and also receive notifications suggesting activities to increase it.

I love the technology behind Starling, and I'm excited for its future. But until it develops further, Starling will just feel like a $200 reminder to talk to your child.

With Starling, parents can teach kids to speak earlier

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The Starling device is well designed and sturdy. It clips to clothing easily, and its drool- and waterproof frame won't break when young children chew on it.

I also like the app, which lets you set daily goals and measure your success over time. Its daily tips offer variety, so one-way conversations with your infant don't start to feel repetitive. One tip, for instance, suggests talking your child through the emotions they're expressing, and giving them a vocabulary to articulate those feelings as they grow.

Starling is a great resource for parents who want to set their kids up for future success. But after a few weeks of using it, I can't help but wonder if the price tag is justified. Practically, the Starling's greatest value is simply its presence. Even if the goal-setting and daily tips fall by the wayside over time, as they did for me, the device itself will remain a clear and helpful reminder to consistently engage with your child.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

But is that reminder really worth $200? I mean, a sticker that says "Speak to me" on it would have nearly the same effect, and it would cost far less.

And speaking of cost, when I began researching language development in infants for my own benefit, I found one of the most important revelations by the Stanford Center for Infant Studies: the language gap is closely connected to socioeconomic status (SES). Put simply, kids from lower SES backgrounds tend toward the lower end of the language gap.

That means the kids most in need of Starling's technology aren't the ones whose parents can afford a $200 gadget. And conversely, the parents willing to buy Starling probably will benefit less from it than others. On its website, VersaMe acknowledges the need for Starling's technology in lower SES homes, and says it plans to partner with community organizations to meet this need. Its "Our Social Efforts" page is currently under construction, though, so how those partnerships will actually look remains to be seen.

These critiques aren't to say Starling's technology doesn't have promise for parents interested in baby-related tech. I'm impressed that it works with all languages. I only tried it with two -- English and Spanish -- but VersaMe says it's tested it with English, Spanish, French, Polish, Hindi, Mandarin, Japanese, Hebrew and others.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

But just counting words won't dramatically improve how I parent. Ditto for many parents -- especially those who are intentional enough to consider buying a gadget like Starling.

What would help? Recording my word variety to help me develop my child's vocabulary over time. Giving me tips based on my speech patterns and speeds, to help me optimize my son's speech acquisition. It might seem like I'm asking too much, but developers at VersaMe say such features are within reach. It might just take updated hardware to make them a reality.

Starling was one of the devices I most looked forward to reviewing this year, but after working with it, the technology still seems to be in its infancy. The potential hasn't left Starling, but until some of the features on the horizon become realities, I'd wait to shell out $200.

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6.6

VersaMe Starling

Score Breakdown

Features 3Usability 8Design 9Performance 7