The rise of goo-goo gadgets: Hey baby, nice wheels!
Pushchairs designed with the kind of precision engineering you'd expect on a sportscar. Babygros that monitor your child 24-7. High chairs that look as though they came from the Apple store. Since when did the nursery get so hi-tech? Dad-to-be Luke Blackall reports on the rise of goo-goo gadgets
At the Bugaboo showroom in Henley-on-Thames I found myself mesmerised. More out of politeness and necessity – I am soon to be a father – than of interest, I had gone to see the prams. But I was quickly drawn in by the range, the engineering and gadgetry behind it, and the fact that the demonstrators talked about the stroller's "chassis" and showed the satisfying click noises it makes when put together.
It was the start of a journey of discovery, where I found a previously unknown interest in baby products. This was largely due to their increasingly technological nature, which means that these new takes on the old classics are being marketed towards gadget fans.
Well aware of the trend, technology magazine T3 has a Tech Dad section devoted entirely to parenting gadgets, and according to Mark Mayne, T3's online editor, it's not a difficult section to fill. "The volume of stuff we're getting through is increasing dramatically, and big brands are approaching us a lot more. They're definitely interested in getting into a tech magazine," he says.
Mayne believes that it is a trend reflected across all manner of lifestyle products.
"You can see it with kitchen gadgets and fitness products as well. Increasingly, the selling point is technology and that often plays to a male audience, which likes to think it is more au fait with that kind of thing. There has been a huge explosion in child-care related tech."
Whether they are toys that play the sound of a mother's heartbeat or baby gyms that come with iPod docks built in, these items seem a lifetime away from the world of Silver Cross prams and wooden building blocks. But then the baby-product market is booming, thanks to parents who don't want hand-me-downs and hanker after the most hi-tech functionality. According to Mintel, 84 per cent of British parents purchase a new pram. In the US, the luxury-baby category is projected to grow to $10.6bn (£6.44bn) next year.
Nothing seems to be safe from this hi-tech mission creep. Take baby monitors. Until recently they were little more than glorified intercom systems. Two weeks ago I was contacted by D-Link, originally a network and communications product manufacturer, now creator of the EyeOn Baby Camera (£129.99). This new model incorporates a thermometer and a built-in lullaby function with almost military-sounding capabilities such as sound sensors, "night-vision infrared LEDs" and remote access so that you can watch your child on your phone or tablet wherever you are. Just like Netflix, really.
There are monitors with special movement sensors for the cot and then there is Exmobaby. This looks like any ordinary cotton babygro, but inside it has a strap to monitor the activity of your baby's heart, and on the outside there are movement sensors and a thermometer.
Described by its maker as a "smart garment", the outfit will then send you a text message to let you know the baby's vital signs. Never mind that reason tells you that you could tell all these things by, you know, actually picking the child up. There is still the lingering doubt (particularly for the parent with money to burn – the Exmobaby and its accompanying system cost $1,000 when it launched) that when the child is born you might not hear it cry.
Then there's the nursery to think of. Bloom makes the sort of slickly styled baby furniture that wouldn't look out of place in a bachelor pad or nightclub.
Founded seven years ago by "four dads wanting to bring meaningful innovation and beautiful design to the world of baby products", its products are "engineered not only as beautiful-looking furniture and gear but also for extensive functionality".
This means futuristic-looking high chairs that vibrate and look as though they might house future Bond villains.
While this growth may at times seem relatively unimportant, over-the-top or even (particularly to non-parents) comical, behind it all are designers taking baby-product design incredibly seriously.
Aernout Dijkstra-Hellinga, creative design director at Bugaboo, says that his company is driven by the demands of form and function in wanting to make products that are "timeless". "It takes us – the design and engineering team – roughly three to four years to start with a concept and finish it," he says over the phone from Holland. "Even after that it's not yet produceable, but at that stage we will have all the solutions ready."
The quirks and the clicks ("audio and visual feedback", he calls them), might attract novices like me, but Dijkstra-Hellinga says that the design is about much more than gadgets. "Men are always more attracted to the gadget factor," he says. He's definitely seen through me. "That's not necessarily a compliment for the product because it's about lasting performance. It's not just a gadget thing – we have to amaze people throughout the period that they use it."
Some companies are more overt in their bids to attract gadget-mad dads (never mind the mothers who are hardcore technology fans). High-end buggy manufacturer iCandy, says that it has designed its Strawberry stroller "with fathers in mind".
At times, the specification list reads like a car brochure: "The three-position, reclinable, forward-facing and parent-facing seat unit features a zip pocket underneath the leg rest for out-of-sight storage."
At Mamas and Papas, the product design and testing is also rigorous, the firm is proud of the fact that each model of pram is "walked" 500 miles and folded 5,000 times, to simulate five years' use. Amanda Scachetti, the firm's product development director, says that during that long process the wants and needs of both men and women are considered – but she believes the wants of mothers and fathers can be very different.
"I remember spending lots of time in stores," she says. "I would watch parents go in there and I would see the mum feeling the fabrics, the softness of the fabrics, having a look at the hood and the dads are all there down at the wheel part of the pushchair, kind of feeling them around, 'Has it got ball-bearings? Has it got suspension? Yeah, let me just give it a real push, see what this is like' – it's amazing the difference you see."
Of course, it's not just dads who like gadgets, and the hi-tech sheen being given to baby equipment is part of a larger trend.
"Large-scale product designers are creating objects that seek to align themselves with the Apples and Samsungs of the world, either directly, through product integration and hardware/software compatibility or appropriating their aesthetic," explains James Cartwright of design publishing platform It's Nice That.
"There's a Danish company called AM that has mimicked Apple's rounded edges and bright colour palettes, with the specific intention of being stocked in Apple stores worldwide. In that sense, design is adopting all of these bits of interactive 'functionality' for all sorts of objects that don't need it. This idea of having an app for everything has come to dominate every conceivable facet of the product-design world."
He's not wrong – earlier this year on a Eurostar train, I saw three couples using iPads to distract young children, even the smallest ones apparently able to understand the finger swipe method required. "Most tablets and phones have a babysafe mode, so you can't go and buy apps and you can't run up a huge phone bill but you can get a toddler using a touch-screen device," says Mayne. "A lot of apps providers are tapping into that market. The number of baby-related apps has rocketed."
So it seems that while the design world is creating products with hi-tech specs to appeal to the grown-ups, the devices in our pockets are becoming increasingly child-friendly.
Tech dad? he's nothing compared to these iBabies.
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