Technology world: Crawling into the cradle


Published — Friday 11 January 2013

Last update 11 January 2013 12:44 am

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ONE is never too young to be connected.
The technology industry displaying its wares at the massive Consumer Electronics Show this week at Las Vegas included a variety of products and apps aimed at the youngest audiences, even those unable to walk.
The baby tech offerings featured accessories and apps marketed to parents as tools to help children learn at a very tender age.
Fisher-Price was showing a bright plastic object with teething rings that doubles as an iPhone case. That makes it possible for a six-month-old to use the smartphone.
"It's a great learning tool," said Julia Maher, marketing manager for infant toys at Fisher-Price, a unit of Mattel.
"We see moms passing back their devices to occupy babies all the time."
She said babies "like to turn pages" and can in fact interact with a mobile device.
For 18-month-olds, another device from the toymaker attaches to the iPad, giving toddlers another option to start a digital lifestyle.
A tablet designed specifically for young children was on display at CES from the French company Lexibook.
The colorful device, which can withstand the numerous drops expected from the young ones' heavy usage, is designed for children from four to eight years old "but kids have the ability to use this at age two," said sales representative Robert Manlin.
These gadgets come on top of others such as the "tabeo" from retailer Toys "R" US designed for children, and released last year.
Tactile screens make it a lot easier for kids to go mobile, but some experts worry about prolonged exposure to these devices.
Company officials argue, however, that parents know best the limits for their kids.
"When I was young, people asked if kids watch too much TV," said Bill Hensley, vice president for marketing at Wanderful, which was showing its apps and interactive books for kids at the CES in Las Vegas.
"Education is a big part of what we do."
The new technology "helps children not only to learn to read, but also to love stories. It's a gateway to real books," he said.
In some of the new interactive devices, children can find a word or image and figure out how to match them, or to make them move, part of key early learning skills, according to backers.
"If the app is used properly, there's no harm for kids to develop creativity or Internet skills early in the childhood," said Steven Chu, chief operating officer of Canadian child mobile app maker ToonBoom.
Others note that tactile screens and apps can be especially beneficial for children with disabilities.
Interbots has developed a system aimed at autistic children, allowing them to control a robot through a tactile screen. A therapist can also use the robot to speak, offering a new type of interaction for the children.
"Children with autism like working with touchscreens, they're a little more keen on interacting with a robot than with a parent or a therapist," said Interbots chief technical officer Michael Knight.
Are consumers ready for TV watching back?
In the new world of technology, television is not just for watching. It is also watching you.
So-called smart TVs being unveiled this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show offer technologies that watch the viewer, in an effort to offer more relevant programming.
The idea may sound eerie to those familiar with George Orwell’s novel “1984” but people in the industry say this is the next step in the evolution of TV viewing.
Chinese manufacturer TCL unveiled at the show a new TV and set-top box to be sold later this year in the US using the Google TV platform which recognizes who is watching in order to suggest potential programs.
The new TV developed with Marvell Technology Group uses sensors and voice recognition to determine who is viewing and can offer streamed or live programs which appear to appeal to an individual or family.
“We have developed many innovations to personalize the viewing experience,” said Haohong Wang, general manager in the US for TCL, a major global manufacturer which has made TVs under the RCA and Thomson brands.
This offers a “game-changing entertainment experience for consumers around the world that will drive the smart TV market forward at a rapid pace,” said Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell.
Panasonic also used CES to show its new Viera smart television which can recognize users and create a home screen allow programing tailored for each.
Other manufacturers are working on similar technology which take advantage of television over Internet.
This new interactivity opens up possibilities for advertisers who will be able to develop more targeted pitches, but raises some of the same privacy concerns of data collection on the Web.
“The concept is not so much Big Brother as Big Marketer,” says Thomas Coughlin of the data consulting firm Coughlin Associates, who is attending the Las Vegas gathering.
“This could be creepy to some of us because it is making use of data in a way that has been done before.”
Coughlin said consumers will want to know where the data is and how it might be shared, and says there also may be questions about security of the data in the cloud.
Rob Enderle, an analyst and consultant with Enderle Group, said this model will become the norm as television gravitates to Internet platforms.
“Increasingly, TVs will know who is watching them and I expect advertisers will know shortly thereafter. This should result in shows and commercials you like more and even better products, but far less privacy.”
Stu Lipoff, a fellow at the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said TV on mobile devices will have similar characteristics, with considerable amounts of data which can be gleaned about viewers.
“The website not only knows you are interested in Chevy, but knows where you are,” he said.
James McQuivey at Forrester Research said consumers will accept these privacy tradeoffs if they see an advantage to the new style of television.
“If you ask people, of course they will say no,” McQuivey told AFP, while noting that millions have accepted this type of tracing by connecting their TVs to Xbox consoles with Kinect motion detection where “the camera is tracking you all the time.”
“This tells me Orwell got it wrong,” he said. “Orwell’s camera did the bidding of the state and these cameras do your bidding.”
But he said companies should be prepared to develop privacy policies to avoid government intervention.
TCL’s Wang says, meanwhile, the TV makers are not interested in tracking people and will allow them options.
“We are an equipment company. What we want is to give a good user experience,” he said. And if viewers feel uncomfortable with being monitored they don’t have to use those features, he said: “They can just turn it off.”

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