A boom in smarter baby monitors

Feb 03, 2012 By Deborah Netburn

The cry has been heard: After 20 years with little change to baby monitoring devices, new designs premiered in January at the Consumer Electronics Show promising Wi-Fi connectivity and high-definition video that streams live to a smartphone.

Some new monitors will have two-way audio, allowing parents to whisper comforting words in their baby's ear without stepping foot in the room. Other monitors will text messages when a baby starts to cry, and still others will allow parents to shift the camera's view up, down and around the room remotely, using an iPad.

The next generation of technology represents a leap from most of today's monitors, which consist of a equipped with a microphone in the baby's room, and a receiver in another room, often no more than 1,000 feet away. When the baby stirs, or coos, or cries, mom and dad can hear and decide whether to intervene.

Baby monitor makers such as Graco, Fisher-Price, Sony and Samsung have made modest attempts to jazz up their monitors over the years: Baby cams, which allow parents to see video from the crib, entered the market in 1993 and have since improved . Even basic audio monitors now come with extras to make them more appealing. Some glow in the dark or give the temperature of the baby's room.

But given a rapidly changing technological environment, plus a parenting culture that's obsessed with safety and seemingly undeterred by price, people in the tech industry said baby monitors have long been overdo for a makeover.

"It's been surprising that it has taken so long for the major players in the industry like Sony and Samsung to catch up and push the boundaries of baby monitors," said James Hunt, marketing manager for a new monitor called BabyPing. "It's a market that is crying out for it, so to speak."

Babies R Us expanded its baby monitor display this fall to accommodate new entries on the market.

"While traditional audio monitors continue to sell well at Babies R Us, we've seen an increased consumer interest in monitors featuring high-tech options such as touch screens," said Adrienne O'Hara, a spokeswoman for the company.

Many of the new monitors are designed to help parents check in with their baby, even when they are away from home.

"More and more, both parents are part of a mobile workforce, and we felt there was a demand for a product that would allow a mother, father or caregiver to see the baby - not just hear the baby - at any given time, wherever you are in the world," said Adam Lin, senior vice president and general manager at iHealth, a tech company specializing in health and wellness that launched the iBaby monitor in October.

Like many of the new monitors on the market, the iBaby is designed to work with an IOS device. Parents can use their iPhone and iPad to watch their baby whenever they want, and from wherever they are. They can also snap pictures of their sleeping baby remotely, talk to the baby as long as an external speaker is placed near the crib, share live video of the baby with up to three other devices, and even use an interface on the iPad to pan the camera around the baby's room.

The iBaby costs $200 and is available at select Babies R Us, some Best Buy stores and in Apple stores. iHealth would not release sales figures, but Lin said the new device has consistently beat sales expectations in all its retail locations.

The BabyPing monitor, which also uses the iPhone and interface, will be available in the U.S. in the spring. It was developed by Y-cam, a British company that specializes in high-tech security cameras for residential and commercial spaces. The company decided to branch out into baby monitors when it learned that some of its customers were using security cameras to monitor children.

Hunt said it was easy for Y-cam to load BabyPing with infrared night vision, full color video with 600-by-480 pixel resolution and a high-quality microphone that cuts static background noise. That's the company's bread and butter. What was more difficult was deciding which functions to take out of the product so parents didn't feel overwhelmed. It will retail for $199 in the U.S.

Yet another entry to the market comes from the French company Withings, whose Smart Baby Monitor keeps track of the temperature and humidity in the baby's room. It comes with four pre-recorded lullabies, which you can play remotely, and it has a night light with four color choices. A spokeswoman for the company said Withings still has not decided on the price but hopes that the product will be available in the U.S. by February.

Because these baby monitors are so new, it's hard to know how appealing they will prove to be. Would parents find it comforting to check on the baby if they are out to dinner with friends or about to see a movie? Or would it induce stress to know the baby was crying?

William Wildstein, a restaurant owner and father of three in Miami, bought the iBaby a few months ago and said that during a typical night out for dinner with his wife, he checks on his 2-year-old about three times. "Of course we don't leave him alone, but I still like to check on the little guy," he said.

Lin from iHealth said the company has heard of people buying its iBaby monitor for children as old as 5. "So far the bulk of the people buying it are people who are about to give birth, to people with 2-year-olds," he said.

As for using these monitors for older children, Lin said it hasn't worked for him.

"When we were testing out the product I used it to watch my 13-year-old son and he got pretty upset," Lin said. "I had the camera set up in the living room and I'd move it up and down from my office and then I'd get the call. 'Dad, cut that out.'"

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