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An eye in the sky

Parents can keep an eye on their children in nursery - by Internet. By Stephen Pritchard
Child care is big business. As the number of working parents continues to rise in Europe and North America, so does the demand for creches and nurseries. In the US alone, there are some 80,000 creches or day-care centres.

Most nurseries are good and safe, but the rogue nanny has become an American middle-class nightmare, driven by films such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and a few well-publicised abuse cases.

Although the fears are mostly unfounded, they are natural enough; many parents feel a slight emptiness in their stomachs when they leave Junior in the hands of a stranger.

In the United States, day-care centres operate an open-door policy. Parents can visit at any time without alerting the teachers, but child-care experts say it disrupts and unsettles the children, as well as taking a chunk from the parents' working day.

An alliance between a Swedish and a US company believes it has a better alternative. The solution, known as KinderCam, provides a continuous feed of pictures from the creche to the Internet.

Parents can use any computer with a Web browser such as Netscape to log in at any time and see what their son or daughter is doing. The system is protected from prying eyes by a user number, unique to the child, and a password. Even authorised parents can only see the room their child is in at the time, but there is nothing to stop parents giving distant relatives the authority to log into KinderCam's Web site. ParentNet, which operates the system in the United States, already has one set of grandparents in Israel who use the Web site.

The idea is North American, but the core technology, a Web camera called the NetEye 200, comes from Axis Communications, based in the Swedish university city of Lund. Axis specialise in "thin servers" - devices with just enough intelligence to work autonomously, but simple enough to cost far less than a conventional computer-based server.

According to Axis, adding a thin server to a network, whether a camera, print server, or CD-Rom system is as easy as plugging in a few wires. In creches, this means the cameras can be placed out of harm's way.

The NetEye delivers two frames a second to the ParentNet host computer, using JPEG file compression to keep the files to around 25kb. The effect is more like slow motion than real-time video, but the images are compact enough to view over a modem connection.

Currently, there is one operational KinderCam system, in a day-care centre in ParentNet's home state of Georgia. Three cameras cover the creche, which looks after 150 children. The installation, including a fixed link to the Internet, cost $15,000 - a cost recouped by subscriptions from parents. Axis says 80 per cent have signed up.

The US market has huge potential, says Jeff Mesnik, Axis' product manager for the NetEye. He estimates that there could be 2,000 KinderCam systems within 18 months. Nor is it limited to the Internet - 6,000 US companies provide creche facilities in the US, and it should be easy to add a NetEye to their intranets.

Mikael Karlsson, Axis chairman and CEO, points out that the KinderCam is just one possible application for the Web camera. Other areas include monitoring manufacturing lines, and security. The NetEye has an IO port which can activate the camera, for example, if an intruder crosses an infra-red sensor beam. Axis is also talking to banks about installing the NetEye at cashpoints to deter theft and "phantom withdrawals".

This would be simple to implement in Europe, as cashpoints are already networked to the banks' central computers. Nurseries, generally, are not online, and the cost of connecting them to the Internet, along with a smaller market of computer owning parents, might hinder KinderCam's take- up in Britain.

Concerns over privacy may also get in the way. "We don't like to look at it as surveillance," Mesnik says. "We focus on areas where people are not going to be offended by it"n