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Baby tech makers, please figure out what parents actually need

Commentary: There’s a growing list of kid tech like oxygen sensors, scales and Wi-Fi cameras. But I’ve barely bought in because most of this stuff misses the point.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
5 min read
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Tech-crazed millennials are having kids, but few of the devices being sold to them make sense.

James Martin / CNET

For the past 19 months, my wife and I have been living with another human.

He can get cranky, and he's sometimes a picky eater. But he can also flash a smile that melts your heart.

I'm talking about my toddler son, Theodore.

As a tech reporter and the producer of CNET's Status Update podcast about parenting in the modern age, I'm often asked how much kid tech I own.

The answer: Not much.

And that's notable because I'm a tech fan boy. I get a new iPhone every year, I regularly geek out over new software, and I can't wait to play the Nintendo Switch with Theodore when he's older.

When it comes to stuff that's supposed to help me in my life as a dad, there are plenty of products that pass the "oh, that's clever" test. But few justify their price by truly upending the way I parent today.

That's a problem, and not just because needy and sometimes desperate parents could really use some good tech to help with their kids.

It's also an issue because bad products may end up hurting an industry that's still so small that few analyst firms follow it. Electronics accounted for less than 9 percent of baby product sales in 2015, according to industry watcher GfK. The top purchases by parents: food products, car seats and strollers.

That's part of the reason founders like Naya Health's CEO Janica Alvarez are frustrated by venture capitalists who just don't appear to understand women in technology at all. In one case, a male VC refused to touch her company's flagship product, the $999 Naya Smart Breast Pump. He called it "disgusting," she told Bloomberg. (Alvarez successfully turned to Kickstarter for her second product, a $79 smart bottle, due early next year).

That kind of resistance, mixed with the typical white-male heavy demographic of the tech industry, has slowed the evolution of baby tech products.

"They've tried to build a better mousetrap instead of disrupting an industry," said Sara Mauskopf, CEO of Winnie, an app to connect parents and help them find stuff to do nearby. "It's a lack of founders with the right background and insight into the problem."

Watch this: A sleeping baby with the push of a button

Big show, slow change

The dearth of innovative products seems startling when you look at products being showcased at the BabyTech Summit, a four-day event held during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. CES is expected to draw more than 180,000 attendees.

VersaMe's Starling, a device that tracks how many unique words people say to their kids, is a finalist for the 2018 Best of BabyTech Awards. Its predecessor won in 2016. CNET gave that device three stars, saying $200 was a steep price for a device that's effectively meant to remind you to talk to your kid. (I'm an extreme Type-A extrovert, so talking to my son isn't a problem.)


Kinsa's smart thermometer is one of the few kid-tech devices we've regularly used.

Chris Monroe/CNET

There's also Nanit, which bills itself as a smarter video monitor for your baby's crib. It's a contender this year, and it was last year too. For a starting price of $299, it offers high-definition video and a bird's-eye-view. For an extra $100 per year, it can give you a time lapse of sleep movement and analytics about how well your kids slept, too.

New versions of Owlet's medical sensor sock (3.5 stars with CNET because the $250 pricetag wasn't justified) and Kinsa smart baby thermometers (3.5 stars with CNET, same price-to-value problem) made those company's products multiyear contenders as well.

"It does feel like an industry where opportunity exists," said Sarah Holmes, a research senior vice president at consultancy Frank N. Magid Associates.

So far, Holmes says a mix of slower innovation on the industry side and a parent's newfound excitement over non-techie stuff like simple wooden play toys has left us with few truly innovative products. "Whatever product is out there obviously has to fill a need," she said.

Jill Gilbert, the producer for the BabyTech Summit and awards show for Living in Digital Times, said one of the biggest hurdles to the industry's success is the steep cost of the products. "Prices are going to have to come down -- they're ridiculous," she said. Companies also need to focus on products that solve a true problem, rather than exist as a mere "nice to have."

Meanwhile, some of the biggest stars of the industry, like the makers of the $1,160 Snoo intelligent bassinet (a winner last year), didn't return to CES this year because not much had changed in their products.

"I don't think there's going to be evolving products every year," she said.

Among the entries for this year's fare are four fertility trackers, a temperature and humidity monitor, and three Wi-Fi cameras -- as if there aren't enough of those. Oh, and there's a scale that tries to sell itself as a baby tech product with a picture of a mother holding her baby and the marketing line, "Its foot-fitting arc cover with non-skid and waterproof surface provides extra stability and security, especially for the families with pregnant women, babies, and elders."

"What are we really solving?" said Dr. Harvey Karp, founder of Happiest Baby, a tech startup named after his chart- topping "The Happiest Baby on the Block" book and DVD.

Since his first product, the Snoo, came on the market a little over a year ago, Karp has been focused on finding ways to introduce it into hospitals and infant care centers because he believes the bed will help save lives. "If we aren't solving problems, it's just a game."

My wife, Laura, thinks about the same stuff when it comes to actually buying and using these devices. The only two baby tech devices we've regularly used so far are a Kinsa smart thermometer and the free Hatch Baby app, which we used to track her pumping sessions, along with Theodore's feedings and diaper changes in his first few months.

When I asked what tech she'd want, she started talking about grocery delivery, and a robot maid to help with chores and offer that crucial third hand when it's most needed. "Most tech that's relevant for your life would help with your kids, too," she added. 

In the meantime, I'll be on the hunt for something original, actually helpful and new while walking around the CES show floor.

Maybe I'll find a better playpen or a baby gate that's easy to use. I'd love to find entertainment that isn't so mind-numbing that it's spawned internet memes.

Is that too much to ask?