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The New Baby Boom
The New Baby-Gear Boom
Here's a look at the latest innovative products that, through design and technology, aim to ensure the safety and comfort of infants and toddlers
By Reena Jana
There's a new baby boom -- in the retail market. According to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn., which tracks baby, toddler, and young preschooler products (excluding diapers, food, and apparel), retail sales have nearly doubled in the past decade, from $4 billion to $7 billion annually.
It's a boom that's echoing through companies in myriad industries, from technology and health to industrial design and consulting firms. The first wave of products, already on the market, focused on remaking classic baby gear and was developed by big-brand companies, often with the help of outside design firms. Fisher-Price's Deluxe Jumparoo, a folding jumper/toy console created by IDEO in 2004, is one example.
Meanwhile, a range of companies not usually associated with the toy or infant-care market -- including Intel, Phillips, and Accenture -- are now researching baby-related applications of cutting-edge technologies, with an increasing emphasis on safety and parental surveillance. It's a direction that promises widespread sales to new Gen-X (and soon, Gen-Y) parents weaned on computers and PDAs.
Here's a look at 10 examples of innovative infant gear, some for the parents of 2006, others for the babies of the future.
Accenture Technology Labs
This pimped-out crib -- as in baby crib -- was developed by Accenture as part of an exploration of how the Internet could enhance relationships between infants and their parents. The Online Playroom prototype allows parents to control toys within the crib remotely; the toys receive signals sent via a PC. Upping the ante on today's audio baby monitors, an attached Webcam gives adults a cribside view, while the monitor lets the baby see his parents via a standard Webcam.
Adults in different locations -- grandparents, aunts, uncles -- can also tune in to live Web-video feeds. Accenture has no plans to bring the Online Playroom to market, although the consulting firm is continuing research into consumer applications of Web-enabled telepresence.
DECT Baby Monitor
Was it a sigh or a cry? The static and interference that come with most baby monitors on the market make it hard to decipher. In early September, 2006, Philips will launch what promises to be the next generation of monitors. The two-model series features the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunication (DECT) technology used in cordless telephones, with the same sound quality. The device constantly scans for a free channel among the 60 available to ensure no interference with nearby monitors or phones.
The standard model comes with a neck-slung audio monitor; the higher-end model plays lullabies, monitors the air temperature in the baby's room, and serves as a night light. The monitors won an iF award earlier this year -- one of Europe's highest design honors.
Imprint Custom Nipple for Baby Bottle
These days, you can buy baby-bottle nipples in dozens of shapes. Going one step further, Design Continuum is developing a customized nipple – custom-made based on a 3-D scan of the mother's breast. The bottle is oriented to allow a baby to better nuzzle against the mother's cradling arm, promising a position more similar to a natural breast-feeding pose than bottles currently available. The design firm does not yet have plans to bring the Imprint Custom Nipple to market, though it continues to research the idea.
Available as soon as late this year, this sleek, futuristic crib promises to solve several problems with the classic design. To minimize back strain as a parent bends down to pick up a child, the Intellicot offers a button-controlled elevator-like mechanism that raises the sleeping platform. An automated rocking function soothes a baby to sleep, and an integrated video camera beams images to a portable monitor or TV (for viewing on a larger, higher-quality screen). An air-circulation system ensures that the child stays cool in hot weather. A clear, polycarbonate window on the Intellicot's side allows for not only an intriguing design element but also ample views of a baby sleeping or playing within the unit -- in contrast to the more traditional bars that line the sides of earlier crib designs.
Calla High Chair
Yves Behar for Fleurville
In shape, this chic high chair -- scheduled to hit stores in October, 2006 -- recalls the flower it is named for. The calla lily-like seat allows for an easier reach between parent and child, meaning less arm strain experienced when a mother or father reaches out to feed a baby, a common problem that stems from the often bulky, obtrusive designs of traditional high chairs. Designer Yves Behar, who has worked with such outfits as Toshiba and Herman Miller, also developed customizable seat inserts so parents can easily adjust the seat for a growing baby's body. This means the chair can be used for children between 4 months and 2 years old. Safety belts and a sturdy, automatic brake system for the chair's built-in wheels (for easy storage and moving) add to the Calla's list of inventive features.
Sunshade and Breezy Sun Canopy
Bugaboo's designers conceived this sun-protection system when they observed parents draping blankets or clothing over carriages to shade infants. While the impromptu solution shielded young skin from the sun, the designers worried about air flow. Hitting shelves in August, 2006, Bugaboo's two-part canopy promises optimal shade from harmful UVA and UVB rays -- a full 50 SPF -- along with healthy air ventilation. The sunshade is treated with a UV-reflective coating, and because it is made from a layered mesh, the shade allows for constant air circulation. A taller, separate sun canopy that adds another layer of shade can be used in conjunction with the sunshade, although parents can also buy each one individually.
Baby Monitoring System Prototype
For many years, Intel's research arm has developed concept PCs that showcase new applications for its chips. More recently, Intel has been developing health-related product concepts, like this baby monitoring system concept, rarely seen outside Intel's labs. Inspired by interviews with expectant mothers, parents, midwives, and doctors, the crib features a video camera and a mattress outfitted with motion and pressure sensors. The sensors track breathing and heartbeat patterns, as well as a baby's movements, and transmit the data to the parents' PC. Parents could print out data from an extended period for a doctor to analyze. Researchers also hope to incorporate alarms that would alert Mom and Dad if a toddler is making an escape.
Anecia Survival Capsule
Janusz Liberkowski and Evenflo
In May, 2006, baby-gear maker Evenflo announced it would develop a forward-thinking infant car seat designed by the winner of the ABC reality show American Inventor. The Anecia Survival Capsule prototype is named for the deceased daughter of Janusz Liberkowski, the inventor. The seat consists of nested spherical shapes, which spin during a car crash to provide a complex protective shielding system. Evenflo is further refining Liberkowski's original concept with engineers, and has not announced a date for its introduction.
Flair High Chair
Flair High Chair designer Rebecca Finnell set out to create a seat with no hard, sharp corners that could hurt a baby. A mother herself, Finnell was inspired by what was lacking in most high chairs on the market. The chair features a pneumatic lifting system for easy height adjustment and a feeding tray lower than most others to better fit a tiny infant or toddler. The Flair is also designed to morph into a child-size dinner chair as the child grows. Parents simply remove the tray, safety restraints, and cushions, and lower the height. The high chair will be available in two models: a standard one with a plastic base (hitting stores in January, 2007) and a fancier one with a stainless-steel base (scheduled for release in March, 2007).
Child Restraint Monitor
At the Consumer Electronics Show in early 2006 -- the biggest personal-gadget trade fair of the year -- Delphi showed off its Child Restraint Monitor. Targeted to come to market in 2007, the battery-operated device uses motion sensors (and others) to detect whether a parent has installed a car seat correctly. The monitor checks the four common mistakes when installing an infant car seat: an unattached seat base; unbuckled seat belts; an incorrect, unsafe angle of installation; and a loose seat harness. A light signal alerts parents if something needs correction.